It takes a certain kind of faith to watch a movie. For the duration of, let’s say, an hour and thirty minutes or so we are asked to suspend skepticism and buy into an artistic vision. It is a contract, if you will, between us and the director and whether or not we keep that contract is a testament to his or her skill as storyteller.
Sometimes we have to break the contract, because the director is asking more of us than we are willing to give. For instance his or her vision might be too unbelievable, an insult to our intelligence, as it were, or there may be too many inconsistencies that we just can’t get past; the themes too abstract or too literal, too much gravitas or not enough.
Sometimes the movie just isn’t our cup of tea. And sometimes the movie just isn’t good. Either way, it comes down to a matter of perspective.
Irrespective of all that, I find it fitting that the late Bill Paxton, a prolific practitioner and disciple of the cinematic art form acting in over fifty films that spanned a forty year career, would explore faith as a motif in Frailty, his 2002 directorial debut. Why? Well, although I don’t know his opinion on religious matters, he always came across as a sincere and decent man in an industry that is typically disinterested in those values.
And while he certainly profited from his profession–his estate is valued at over forty million dollars–he was never an A list leading man, though his performances–One False Move and A Simple Plan come to mind–were always solid, often stellar and more diverse than he was credited. His reputation, he claimed, was a result of misconception and came at the expense of his artistry–“I get kind of tired of reading that,” he said of his nice guy image and everyman persona, “I’ve played a lot of people.” Yet, whether he liked it or not, some of his best work came from his portrayals of men that were similar to himself–masculine stalwarts of humility and grace.
In Frailty, Bill Paxton stays within the perimeters of his wheelhouse with a character referred to simply as Dad or as Mr. Meiks. The single parent of two boys–Fenton (Matthew O’Leary) is about twelve, his younger brother Adam (Jeremy Sumpter) is around seven or eight–Mr. Meiks works long hard hours as a mechanic and then heads straight home to a simple life of church on Sundays, prayers before supper and good natured rough housing in front of the television set.
He is a religious man but not fanatically so, there is no illusion of perfection or inappropriate propriety. He doesn’t cuss but he will have a drink and a smoke. His boys are well fed, have clean clothes and good manners. They live in a modest house behind a rose garden that is their small Texas city’s flagship attraction. It is late 70s Americana. Life is good.
Then one day, Mr. Meiks has an epiphany. He is under a car (a Mercury Cougar, actually, I’d say about a ’68 or a ’69) and the canopy of nuts and bolts, pipes and metal suddenly dissolves into a heavenly apparition. A fiery angel appears with a christening sword.
At home he describes the events of the day to his sons, if not matter-of-factly, then earnestly, and relates the reason for the visionary visit: There are demons, disguised as humans, living among us who are responsible for all the vilest acts in society. They are the child predators, the rapists and murders. The Lord has chose them–Mr. Meiks and his sons–to be the dispensers of justice. They must annihilate the demons precisely–first rendering them unconscious with a steel pipe, abducting them, and then dispatching them in a shed on their property with an axe engraved with the moniker OTIS.
Adam–the more gullible, less guileful of the two–is rapt with a sense of purpose and a little afraid. Fenton is mortified. Nevertheless he loves his dad. He hopes, at best, that it’s all a bad dream, he’ll wake up and it’ll go away; at worst, that his dad is suffering from temporary insanity, he’ll wake up and it’ll go away.
The day of reckoning mercifully doesn’t come immediately but unmercifully, for Fenton anyway, it does come finally when Mr. Meiks loads up an old cargo van with the weapons of destruction and his two sons, dispatching them to a parking lot. There they stakeout an even older immaculately preserved vehicle awaiting the owner-operator to return. Fenton clings to hope that somehow, someway–perhaps the hand of God will reach down and halt his dad–the plan will go awry.
The owner of the vintage car, an older man with a sweater vest, a paunch and a comb over, finally makes an appearance. He looks like he would be at home behind the counter of a trinket store. He is tricked by Fenton (forced to comply by his father, of course) who pretends he is looking for a misbehaving puppy under the man’s car. When the old guy bends down to help, Meiks whacks him in the head with the pipe.
Back at the family shed, Meiks confronts the man while Fenton cringes and cowers in the corner. Meanwhile Meiks recoils in near convulsions every time he has to touch the man. “Did you see it boys?” he asks all wild eyed. “Did you see the vision when I touched him?”
A terrified Fenton doesn’t see anything other than his father menacing a bludgeoned, gagged and duck-taped old man. But an impressionable Adam does see, or claims he does anyway. “I saw it Dad,” he says resolutely. “I saw what he did.” With that, and much righteous indignation, Meiks goes to work on the man with OTIS.
And, of course, this is only the beginning. Mr. Meiks has a little spiral notepad, the kind men used to keep in their shirt pockets and women kept in their purses. In it is a list of names. Meiks tells Fenton and Adam that this is a list of demons who are hiding behind the names and in the skin of ordinary looking people.
Fenton is horrified by what he sees. It’s a pretty long list.
Like the actor himself, Frailty is an underrated gem. Paxton uses a deft hand bridging the related but still distinct genres of mystery, thriller, suspense and horror with Gothic highlights and tinges of noir so that the end production is strangely beautiful, in the vein of the lush Gothic horror classic Night of the Hunter. In lesser hands, Brent Hanley’s terrific script could have become just another grindhouse mashup.
But perhaps more than anything else Frailty owes its verve and vitality to its director’s rightfully deserved reputation as an all around good guy, though he would be chagrined to consider it. Who else could have assembled a veteran cast with fellow Texans Matthew McConaughey and Powers Boothe and a virtuoso crew featuring famed cinematographer Bill Butler (The Conversation, Jaws, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) on a budget of a mere eleven million dollars?
In Hollywood it goes without saying, often times things aren’t quite what they seem. Bill Paxton was different; what you saw was what you got and that was a good thing. The same could be said of his film Frailty, but in the present tense, of course, with this caveat: Sometimes the truth is simply what the truth is…And the fastest way to get there is in a straight line.