On a dark and stormy night, a fellow named Fenton Meiks (a low-talking Matthew McConaughey) walks into the Dallas FBI office, claiming to have knowledge of the recent "Hand of God" serial killings. The agent-in-charge (Powers Boothe) is the embodiment of skepticism, but he humors Fenton enough to listen to his story in flashback.
Fenton traces the contemporary killings to events from 1979, when he was a boy (played by Matt O'Leary) living with younger brother Adam (Jeremy Sumpter) and their single dad (Paxton). In their sleepy Texas town, the boys have few concerns beyond what movie they'll go see next, until the night their father wakes them up to announce that he's had a vision from God.
The religious experience proves rather simple, as Dad witnesses a winged living room trophy suddenly blaze with white light. At the kitchen table, Dad tells his sons how he's learned that demons live among them as humans, and the Meiks have been tapped by the Almighty to hunt them down. "We're like superheroes?" Adam asks.
Paxton was clever to cast himself as Dad, with his performance playing both to his salt-of-the-earth, regular guy image from films like Apollo 13 and his darker work in A Simple Plan. Though Dad is filled with righteous fervor, he's no Scripture-quoting prophet but a blue-collar worker who accepts demon-hunting as just another job. His visions tell him which citizens are in reality monsters, and while he doesn't flinch from kidnapping and dispatching them, he's anguished at the prospect of killing a real human being.
Although Frailty has little gore, it includes several scenes of the boys witnessing or abetting violent crimes, many involving an ax. Sumpter's performance suggests how young minds can be shaped by authority figures, as Adam begins to share his father's delusions. Fenton must balance his love for his father with horror at his actions, and O'Leary gives the role a game effort. But as the only sympathetic character, he's required to carry nearly the entire film, which seems too big a burden for the young actor.
At heart, Frailty is the story of an abused childhood. Brent Hanley's script draws on elements of Southern gothic, biblical allegory and even black comedy, with the depraved situation inspiring weird outbursts of sibling rivalry. ("It's not fair! He gets to see God and all I see are these demons!") Hanley pushes the symbolism rather hard, with the Meiks living near a city rose garden and other events taking place in Meat, Texas.
Paxton's direction, while moody and efficient, also tends to be repetitious. The film's intense sequences all end with variations on the same shot: a hand bringing a farm implement down at the camera, following by a meaty off-screen thump.
But Frailty ends on a strong and surprising note, taking several clever twists that go a long way to compensate for the film's weaknesses. Difficult to pigeonhole, Paxton's film seeks to avoid cheap scares and instead leaves the audience with a queasy, shuddering feeling. Frailty meets that goal, suggesting that the family that slays together, stays together.
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