Truth Defies Reason: Perception, Reality, and ‘Frailty’
By Brian Keiper
Few directorial debuts are as daring as Bill Paxton’s Frailty. As Roger Ebert wrote in his four-star review of the film “perhaps only a first-time director, an actor who does not depend on directing for his next job, would have the nerve to make this movie.” It deals in the dark side of religious fervor, dives deep into the shadowy recesses of human nature, and remains ambiguous to the very end — all of which entail cinematic suicide by traditional Hollywood wisdom. Ultimately, it is brave enough to allow each viewer to make up their own mind about what they have seen and heard. It is a film about perspectives and perceptions and whether or not we can believe our own senses and deeply held convictions.
In order to discuss these elements of the film, it is necessary to give away its many plot twists and revelations, so consider this a spoiler alert if you haven’t seen the film.
Much of Frailty is told from a single point of view, a young man, played by Matthew McConaughey, who introduces himself as Fenton Meiks, and claims his brother is the “God’s Hand Killer.” The story he tells the FBI agent in charge of the case, Wesley Doyle (Powers Boothe), has the air of a Biblical parable, the story of a man and his two sons. The man, known throughout the film only as Dad (Bill Paxton) is a loving and caring father doing his best to raise his sons after the death of his wife. The older son, Fenton (Matt O’Leary), is more worldly and developing a cynical edge, while the younger, Adam (Jeremy Sumpter), joyfully sings Sunday school songs on the walk home and is entirely trusting of their father. One night, Dad comes into the boys’ bedroom declaring that he has received a vision from an angel that they have been called by God to destroy demons that walk among them in human disguise. Ever obedient, Adam immediately believes, but Fenton resists and is horrified by the murders his father commits, murders that Dad claims are not the killing of humans but the destruction of demons and therefore good deeds.
Hoping to break Fenton and compel him into belief, Dad engages in what can only be described as child abuse, forcing Fenton to dig a hole in the ground that will eventually house the “demons” he intends to destroy. As Dad hands Fenton the shovel, he commands him to pray. He digs, but according to the narration, does not pray; the narrator goes on to say that the hole he dug “was as dark and deep as my hatred for Dad’s god.” Later, Dad seals Fenton alone in the basement he was forced to dig, allowing Adam to bring him only a cup of water a day. After weeks, he declares he has had a vision from God and is released from his prison. Dad gives Fenton the axe they use to kill demons (the axe is named OTIS) to slay a man lying on the basement floor, but Fenton plunges it into Dad’s chest instead. Immediately after, Adam grabs the axe and slays the bound man. As they bury the bodies of the “demon” and their father, Fenton tells Adam to promise he’ll bury him in the rose garden when he dies along with the bodies of the other victims of Dad. “I promise to God I’ll bury you here,” Adam says disdainfully.
But there is a hitch in the story. After a drive to the rose garden, the narrator reveals to Agent Doyle that he is not Fenton Meiks as he originally revealed himself to be, but his younger brother Adam, who is now carrying on Dad’s work of demon-slaying. So, the entire film has been through the eyes of an unreliable narrator telling a story from a perspective that is not his own. Adam speaks for Fenton but could not possibly know what he was thinking and feeling in his youth. He also recounts incidents he was not present for, such as Dad’s finding of the weapons, visions of the angel, and private interactions between Fenton and various characters, including Dad and Sherrif Smalls (Luke Askew). His chilling statement early in the film, “sometimes truth defies reason,” comes into startling focus as we realize that the “truth” this character has revealed has been entirely subjective, prone to error, falsehood, or at the very least, far-reaching speculation. Also, no amount of reason could ever convince Adam of something other than the “truth” he believes.
Within the narrative he tells, there are further variations of perspective and interpretation. Dad’s visions could be hallucinations, the products of mental illness, or spring from an undiagnosed physiological ailment such as a brain tumor, but the film never gives definitive answers. His first vision could simply be moonlight dancing upon the trophy he has on his bedroom dresser that he interprets to be a sign from God. While lying under a car in the garage where he works, he sees a vision of the angel descending toward him surrounded by fire. Nearby we see one of his coworkers welding, the sparks flying around Dad’s head. Could it be that there is a leak in the gas lines causing him to hallucinate that these sparks are a holy fire and the angel a figure buried somewhere in his subconscious from a childhood Sunday school lesson? Are the visions he sees of his victims’ sins when he touches them merely his mind justifying his actions? Has a demon deceived Dad into slaying humans? Or has he really been called by God as he believes? In the course of the film, all of these are possibilities.
The matters of personal bias and perspective are complicated even further in a scene toward the end of the film. FBI agents try to remember the man they saw the night before but cannot remember what he looks like, and the security tapes contain a flaw that obscures his face. According to one of the agents, all the tapes contain this same flaw. It hearkens back to a line from the narrator earlier in the film. “According to Dad, nothing, not even a camera could catch us,” he says, “we were invisible when we were God’s Hands.” But even these objective elements could be a coincidence. It is often difficult to recall the features of a person who we have only seen one time, and perhaps the security tapes were defective from the start. The most logical conclusion is that Dad’s religious fanaticism has driven him to kill, and he has drug his loving sons into his murder spree. The older son, Fenton, grows to become a serial killer who keeps the bodies of his victims as trophies in his basement, very likely because of the abuse he experienced as a child. Adam has carried on his father’s delusions and leveraged his role as local sheriff to access his victims.
This is just one point of view. Much of what we take from Frailty depends entirely upon what we bring to it. Our own convictions about ourselves, others, the natural, and the supernatural will greatly color our viewing of the film, which does everything it can not to stand in the way of that viewing, allowing us to draw our own conclusions. And that is the greatest power of Frailty: the fact that it leaves so many possibilities open to its audience. It forces us to examine other perspectives as well as our own to answer why we believe what we believe about the film, about others, and about ourselves. 🩸
Brian Keiper is a featured writer for Manor Vellum. Brian’s also written for Bloody Disgusting, Dread Central, F This Movie!, Ghastly Grinning, and others. Follow him on Twitter @Brianwaves42.
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