Frailty is a drama about the FBI’s hunt for the God’s Hands Killer. A mysterious man waits in one agent’s office one dark and stormy night and says that he knows the identity of the killer. Who is this mysterious man? Is he the killer? Joseph Kallinger, a 1970s NJ serial killer, loosely inspired the story. If you decide to watch Frailty, you will need to give yourself enough time to watch it two times in a row—3 hours 20 minutes. The first time, you will be uncomfortable and trying to figure out what happened. The second time, you will be reevaluating your earlier assessment and coming to terms with the implication of the conclusion. I was tempted to watch it a third time.
If you are a fan of Bill Paxton, Powers Boothe and Matthew McConaughey, then Frailty is a must see, disturbing mind frack. Imagine taking The Usual Suspects, the first season of True Detective except less disappointing, Supernatural, Isaac and Abraham, and The Mist (the movie or the Stephen King story, not the dreadful TV series, which I glanced at and even a completist like me ran in the opposite direction), then setting it in Texas. Frailty is one of Stephen King’s favorite horror movies of 2002. Spoilers to follow.
Frailty is a story about the characters and viewers’ perspective. I hated it because the first time that I watched the film, it was like watching a movie about child abuse and murder. Fenton’s father and brother’s psychological abuse are not the only factors in Fenton’s descent. The idea that no one will believe him or help to stop his father ultimately leads to his insanity. I incorrectly thought that there was a Fight Club/The Sixth Sense phenomenon, and there were not two boys, just one, because no one seemed to interact with the younger brother except the father and the older brother.
I loved it because at the end, after Frailty reveals that God really was telling the father to kill people, and the people were evil, in retrospect, all the signs were strewn throughout the film if you were not already biased into dismissing the Meeks as delusional lunatics, but believed that they were faithful followers of the Lord. Paxton’s artful direction has horrifying implications for the audience and God. We are like Fenton, the implicitly blasphemous serial killer who only kills as a reprise, a response to his father and brother’s righteous killings. If you really think about the implication of the big twist, there are actually two serial killers. We actually know nothing except the origin story of the God’s Hands Killer. We know nothing about his innocent victims-who is that first mutilated body? The entire story is really about the father and Adam successfully killing “demons” without detection for decades, and with the reveal that Adam is married and expecting a baby, the tradition will continue.
The signs that Fenton was going to be the evil one are there: he refuses to sing with Adam except to be the voice of the devil; he rejects his father’s affection, refuses to pray, disobeys, doubts and questions his father; he cannot walk through the rose garden or Eden during the day. Fenton only shows distress when the “demons” are killed, but when his father murders the sheriff, he simply draws himself into the shadows emotionless. I considered all these acts completely reasonable. God is back to his disturbing Old Testament ways, and we are on the wrong side of the apocalypse. I think that is the most frightening aspect of Frailty. Suppose your perception of morality is completely wrong, and while doing the right thing as told to you by God, you are committing atrocities or by doing what you perceive as the right thing, preventing murder, you are doing the wrong thing and destroying the world. It is that ridiculous hypothetical that was bandied around during the 2016 Presidential election: would you kill Hitler BEFORE he had time to start the Holocaust? You can’t win. Because if you did kill him, you would still be a murderer, and there would be devastating personal consequences.
After being tortured for a long stretch of time, when Fenton says that he saw God and “I’m ready to fulfill my destiny,” is he lying, telling the truth or are they talking about the same God? Yes. The most terrifying implication is that he is telling the truth, and God did tell him to fulfill his destiny, which his father refused to fully believe God’s warnings and failed the Isaac test. Fenton becomes a “demon.” It is the problem of Judas Iscariot and Jesus. The more reassuring answer would be that he is reasonably lying and acting in self-defense, or that his god is the devil, who actually gets zero shine in Frailty so I don’t think that is the answer.
Frailty’s details are what make it a great film. When watching it, pay close attention to hands. McConaughey’s character never shakes Boothe’s character’s hand, just passes him a framed photograph. We get a glimpse of the blisters on his hands. Boothe’s character correctly guesses McConaughey’s character’s profession. There is a photograph of the father and brothers fishing. When we see him in a uniform at the end of the film, McConaughey is wiping his hands with a red towel, and the color is significant. Paxton’s character is always trying to give gloves to Fenton when he is doing physical labor or about to commit his first kill, which Fenton refuses and implies that on some level, by destroying his hands, he refuses to see, his family inheritance and “superpower.” When McConaughey finally touches people, we finally see what he and his father saw. The transition from the past to the present in the rose garden is seamless. Adam, even as a child, always made up stories to reach a goal, but what lends credibility to the unreliable narrator is the FBI agent’s reaction, not denial, to Adam’s verdict. I still don’t completely trust Adam’s account of what happened because he always had a jealous streak because Fenton claimed to see God, and Adam only sees demons.
There are still moments in the film that befuddle me. The father has a notebook that has Holy Visions printed on the cover. Can you get that at Staples? Did he custom make it? Curtis is the name of Adam’s millipede and the guy who walks into the sheriff’s office at the end. Why? What did the father whisper to Adam before he died? The ax blocks his mouth so all lip readers can stand down. What did the young guy tied up in the cellar do? What did the last one on the father’s list and Adam’s first kill do? We never see the visions for those last two guys although the implication that the last guy was a physical abuser is strongly implied, but somewhat anticlimactic and rich coming from a family of vigilantes.
Frailty is a richly textured, disturbing film. It forces viewers to empathize with insanity and reframes rational thought into horrific, futile defiance. It challenges the viewer to explore the limits of belief.
Sarah G. Vincent is an infovore who is originally from NYC and has lived in Massachusetts since 1993. She received an A.B., cum laude, in History and Film Studies from Harvard University in 1997 and received a J.D. from Harvard Law School in 2000, where she was also an editor and arts reporter at the Crimson/FM and worked at the Harvard Film Archives. After graduating from Harvard Law School, she published “The Cultural Context of the Shopping Mall: Tension Between The Patron’s Right of Access and the Owner’s Right to Exclude.” She is in a committed, exclusive spiritual relationship with the Triune God and for more information, directs readers to look at the Apostle’s Creed.