Frailty was clearly inspired in part by The Usual Suspects, a movie that offered heavy mystification but no profound implications, much to some viewers’ annoyance. Star and first-time director Bill Paxton apparently considers Frailty a similar sort of diversion; he’s called it primarily “a good, creepy Gothic story.” But scripter Brent Hanley’s premise is actually a good deal creepier than that description admits.
Because Frailty involves an unreliable narrator and several twists, summarizing the plot could reveal more than the suspense-minded filmgoer might want to know. A warning: This review will not disclose the crucial developments of the latter part of the story, but in discussing the film’s moral import, it may provide some unwelcome hints. Here’s the first one: Frailty is a pro-serial-killer movie.
Set mostly in ’70s Texas, Frailty opens in contemporary Dallas, where a man who calls himself Fenton Meiks (Matthew McConaughey) introduces himself to Wesley Doyle (Powers Boothe), the FBI agent in charge of the case of the notorious God’s Hand killer. Fenton identifies the murderer as his tormented younger brother, Adam, who has just killed himself. Then he begins to spin the tale of how Adam’s soul was warped.
It seems that as boys Fenton (Matthew O’Leary) and Adam (Jeremy Sumpter) were living with their widowed father (Paxton), an easygoing small-town mechanic, when one day Dad revealed some strange news: An angel had appeared to him, informing him that the end of the world was near and that God had given them the task of destroying demons. As “God’s hands,” they had the job of abducting local residents whom the Almighty had flagged and then dispatch them with an ax their father called a “magical weapon.” Paxton shows Adam taking to this Jesus-meets-Charlie Manson quest with enthusiasm—he even drafts his own list of demons, including a schoolmate. But Fenton remains skeptical. When Dad brings home the first demon, an ordinary-looking woman, Fenton begs him not to kill her.
For a time, Frailty is less concerned with Dad’s victims than with Fenton’s resistance to his family’s new leisure-time activity. Tiring of his son’s protests, Dad tasks Fenton with digging a new cellar for holding and slaying demons, and then orders him to kill the next victim. When the boy refuses, he’s locked in the basement and left unfed until he’s close to death and thus susceptible to religious visions. Meanwhile, in flash-forwards to the contemporary story, grown-up Fenton leads Agent Doyle into the garden where he says Adam buried his victims. Following the FBI procedures established in The Silence of the Lambs, Doyle follows Fenton to the unofficial graveyard in the middle of the night and without a partner or backup. Of course, something dire is bound to happen.
That something is not an on-screen bloodbath of the sort seen in slasher flicks, however. Frailty takes an old-style approach to slaughter, emphasizing tension over gore. The plot is fairly classic, too, with several wrinkles that veteran thriller watchers will easily anticipate. What distinguishes the movie is its seemingly earnest appropriation of Christian apocalypticism, a tactic that can be seen as either frivolous or wildly irresponsible. The movie’s release was postponed because of the events of Sept. 11, a slaughter effected by people who—just like Paxton’s character—think that God issued them a license to kill. And given its many connections to Bible Belt Texas (all three of its adult stars are Texans), Frailty also evokes the activities of anti-abortion vigilantes who are willing to murder for their cause.
For some, of course, fundamentalist Christianity is an unabashed death trip. The Left Behind series of novels (and the one movie adapted from it), for example, is nothing more than the ultimate revenge fantasy, in which liberals, commies, and other fundamentalist nemeses are sentenced to a horror-movie massacre. Surely Paxton and Hanley didn’t come to Frailty with that sort of agenda; the director-star has said that his principal goal was to “get respect” akin to that accorded to other actor-filmmakers like his pal Billy Bob Thornton. But to do so, he’s made a repugnant movie that glorifies a character who kills for his God. If Frailty is merely a Gothic entertainment, then the Inquisition was a traveling carnival.
Now 66 years old, Pauline (Dora van der Groen) has lived with her sister Martha (Julienne De Bruyn) since their parents died. Of her three siblings, however, the one who fascinates Pauline is Paulette, who runs a fabric store in the small Belgian town that’s home to all the sisters save Cecile (Rosemarie Bergmans). Pauline and Paulette share a taste for bright colors and floral decorative motifs, which director Lieven Debrauwer echoes in the vivid color scheme of his short, simple feature about them, Pauline and Paulette.
Sweetly but exasperatingly childlike, the mentally retarded Pauline is a continual trial for Paulette, even though it’s Martha who has taken responsibility for their difficult sister. That arrangement ends when Martha suddenly dies, leaving behind Pauline and a Hollywood-worthy plot complication: The sisters can split the family inheritance only if one of them agrees to care for Pauline. Paulette, an amateur operetta diva, reluctantly accepts the duty, but reconsiders after the overenthusiastic Pauline disrupts her sister’s star turn in a local performance. So Pauline is sent to Brussels to live with Cecile, with whom she has no affinity whatsoever.
An urban sophisticate with austerely upscale tastes, Cecile lives without the colorful chintz preferred by the title characters—and with a man, Albert (Idwig Stephane), who has no patience for the new arrival. In addition to being a handful, Pauline embarrassingly represents Cecile’s small-town past: She knows only Flemish, whereas Albert speaks only French. Pauline may have to be returned to her other sister—which would disrupt Paulette’s plans to retire to a seaside town.
If the movie’s scenario (devised by Debrauwer and co-scripter Jaak Boon) is familiar stuff, the director can at least take pride in the fact that a Hollywood remake would require an infusion of sentiment. Debrauwer forgoes the emotional breakthrough that might be expected, offering instead a tale of small accommodations and acceptances. That shows admirable restraint, but it leaves little of interest other than the work of the central performers, cinematographer Michel van Laer, and art director Hilde Duyck. Pauline and Paulette is a short struggling to be a feature; even at 78 minutes, it feels too long.CP