'Frailty': A 'Sixth Sense' Without Any

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 12, 2002

The word "frailty" may exactly describe your state of mind after seeing the film of that title. But then, why would you want to?

"Frailty" is a pretty tough sit, possibly more excruciating if you're a parent. At a screening this week, civilians were fleeing – almost as if they were watching a spectacularly gruesome and emotionally destructive, if fictitious, account of child abuse, mounted to provide two tweaks of emotion in a clumsily telegraphed surprise ending. Oh, wait, that is what they were watching.

"Frailty," although it's a 100 percent Texas production, recalls not the Lone Star State but the city of Philadelphia, as represented in M. Night Shyamalan's far better "The Sixth Sense." Clearly, the Texans involved – star/director Bill Paxton, star Matthew McConaughey and ex-star Powers Boothe – were following the "Sixth Sense" paradigm in hopes of reaping similar financial and career glory: They are trying to build a small, dark, tautly plotted, disturbing but not terribly gory occult thriller with materials so sensational that people won't stop talking about it.

Bad try, Tex. Instead, the movie is so disturbing that it seems nearly blasphemous. I wouldn't wish it on an anthrax spore. After all, anthrax has feelings, too.

Structurally – more evidence that whoever invented postmodernism should be shot – the movie is one of those flashback-o-ramas so densely mixed up in time that sometimes there are visions within flashbacks within flashbacks, all of which make no sense in terms of point-of-view appropriateness. But you probably won't notice, because you'll be so busy recoiling.

A lone figure shows up at the Dallas FBI office late one rainy night to see the agent in charge of the infamous "God's Hand" serial murders gripping the city. People are being butchered by some kind of religious maniac claiming to be working for the Big Guy.

Calling himself Fenton Meiks (McConaughey), he unburdens himself to Agent Doyle (Boothe), so the tale unfolds in foreshortened, truncated form, helped along by lugubrious narration. It concerns Dad (Paxton) and the young Fenton (Matthew O'Leary) and the younger Adam (Jeremy Sumpter) in their bungalow in small-town Texas just outside the metropolis. Out of the blue, Dad, a humble mechanic, awakened his two boys one night in the '70s and informed them that God had just spoken to him, and had given him a job. He was now the No. 1 demon-killer, and the two boys, then about 12 and 8, were his assistants.

God, in His methodical way, had given Dad a list of seven demons to be destroyed. Funny, they look just like people, Texans even. So the three of them set out to kidnap, beat and torture those listed, take them to the family cellar and dismember them with a ritual ax named Otis.

Paxton, as a director, knows how powerful this notion is: The father forcing the boys, one of whom is reluctant and the other of whom really digs it, to watch and participate in terrible crimes. So he doesn't show us anything lurid, upon which rests his thin claim to seriousness of purpose. Instead, we watch – time after time – the horror dancing in Fenton's eyes as he witnesses Dad using Otis as if it's the flaming sword of Jehovah.

The central conflict is Fenton's rationality vs. Dad and Adam's true belief, which ultimately causes Dad, in the guise of loving guidance from a parent, to torture Fenton in grotesque psychological and physical ways, such as brutal forced labor or confinement in darkness and thirst for extended periods of time. This is appalling.

Of course, as most movie-savvy people will intuit, the connection between that story and the arrival in the office of this particular federal agent are not exactly unrelated.

The movie begins its whatta-twist! dance when the two men go back to the small town and confront the various fates of those concerned, including themselves. Yeah, it's kind of clever in the most shallow sense of cleverness, but it has no resonance, no reverberation. It's just a trick.

The rule is: Show me anything if it's true and it teaches me something new, but never show me something ugly for the sake of making a few bucks and getting back into the Hollywood limelight.

FRAILTY (R, 100 minutes) Contains extreme emotional intensity involving violence and child abuse. At area theaters.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company