- The Washington Times - Friday, April 12, 2002

"Frailty" shows little mercy for tender natures. It's a horror thriller with compulsively demonic, deceptive and cold-blooded tendencies.

The most effective elements remain brutally down-to-earth: the banal but horrifying episodes that depict an insane parent warping the lives of his defenseless sons.

Screenwriter Bret Hanley and director Bill Paxton, both Texans, use a prologue and an epilogue in the present to frame flashbacks of a dire sequence of events that begins in 1979 in a small Texas town called Thurman. A mystery man played by Matthew McConaughey enters an FBI office on a dark and stormy night and introduces himself as Fenton Meiks to the suspicious agent in charge (Powers Boothe as Wesley Doyle). Meiks wants to clarify an unsolved crime wave that he ascribes to the dementia of his father, known only as Dad and played by Mr. Paxton.

A flashback shows Fenton as an adolescent played by Matt O'Leary, a pensive and adept juvenile actor unable to authenticate some of the torment and cruelty his character must endure. He has a younger brother, Adam (Jeremy Sumpter), who is cherubic and carefree at first glance. Their father is a widowed mechanic who lives in a small frame house that borders a capacious municipal rose garden.

When introduced, the boys seem to have a manageable problem. Fenton would like to see "The Warriors," but Jeremy pleads for a return visit to "Meatballs." A harrowing crisis intrudes when Dad wakes them one night with the revelation that he has been commanded by God to smite "demons" or at least a fragment of them residing within convenient driving distance of Thurman. Since Dad doesn't act immediately, Fenton hopes the notion was a fleeting delusion. But he becomes an eyewitness to Dad's first execution.

Again, a time lag encourages the vain hope that this atrocity was isolated. Unfortunately, Dad has a list and eventually targets the next name. Compelled into more of an accomplice's role, Fenton rebels and threatens to expose the crimes. As punishment, Dad directs him to dig a burial ground in the back yard. As the noose seems to tighten, Fenton becomes alarmed by the enthusiasm Adam demonstrates for getting in on the slaughter.

In fact, he summon the cops, but Thurman's Sheriff Smalls (Luke Askew) considers Fenton a young liar. The sheriff blunders into mortal peril while dragging Fenton back home to get an explanation from Dad.

The plot conspires to leave Fenton with no options except a showdown with Dad and his lethal weapon of choice, an axe with the name "Otis" chiseled into the handle.

Moments before the ultimate showdown, the movie offers an impressive set-piece sequence between Mr. McConaughey and Mr. Boothe sharing a car ride to a fateful rendezvous in the dead of night, with artful simulations of rain, street illumination and passing cars playing across the windows and their faces. This demonstrates the know-how of the venerable cinematographer Bill Butler, whose most famous or typical credits in this vein are "The Rain People," "The Conversation," "Jaws," "Demon Seed" and "Child's Play."

There is something compelling about a loving son forced to deal with the awful truth that his father has gone berserk, transformed overnight into a religious fanatic of the deadly persuasion.

Mr. Paxton has executed the movie's game plan with close to optimum proficiency and some of the tricks are awfully tricky to execute, especially down the stretch, when coming clean is synonymous with deft double-crossing. It's just difficult to escape the conclusion that, metaphorically speaking, Mr. Paxton and his fellow tricksters are doing the devil's work with this fundamentally heartless fable about a psycho patriarch.


TITLE: "Frailty"

RATING: R (Ominous atmosphere and recurrent graphic violence, implicating two juvenile characters as witnesses or accomplices; fleeting profanity; thematic allusions to paternal insanity and religious fanaticism)

CREDITS: Directed by Bill Paxton. Written by Bret Hanley.

RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes


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