“The end of the world is coming. It’s near. The angel showed me.” —Dad (Bill Paxton), Frailty
“I’ve seen the effects of the wind, but I’ve never seen the wind.” —Billy Graham
Hollywood blockbusters tend to traffic in the supernatural as spectacle, and thus as incontrovertible. Films like Constantine and Doctor Strange offer visually dazzling and/or terrifying visions of supernatural creatures and magic: buildings become Escher paintings, people battle painstakingly rendered CGI beasts, and cities are destroyed or folded up in weird shapes. In films like these, angels and devils, both literal and figurative, stride through the frame, and there’s no doubt on the part of the audience about their existence. How could there be? Both the inhabitants of these narratives and those of us watching the narratives unfold have seen overwhelming, incontrovertible proof of that existence. That’s not the world Christians live in, and it’s not the world presented to viewers throughout most of Frailty—one of the better horror films of the 21st century.It’s shockingly awful and shockingly compelling as horror because Paxton’s character remains so upsettingly loving and so fatherly throughout, clearly, sincerely believing in the killing he’s doing.
Bill Paxton’s directorial debut is a darkly disturbing and uncompromising tale within a tale. It begins when Matthew McConaughey walks into the office of FBI Agent Powers Boothe, offering to give him information relating to a serial murderer known as the “God’s Hand Killer.” In order to impart that information McConaughey tells the tragic story of his own family, conveyed to the audience in lengthy, mesmerizing flashback:
Two boys make their way home from school. The younger sings “Down in My Heart” while the older grudgingly pipes in at his brother’s insistence. He’s annoyed but lovingly so, in the way of older brothers since time immemorial. They make their way through the town’s rose garden and to their father’s house. Cicadas buzz. The house is well-worn and comfortable. Mom has passed away, but it’s probably been some time since her passing. Her absence is melancholy but somehow also warm. The boys’ father (Bill Paxton, in one of his best performances), whom we never know by any name other than Dad, is a loving patriarch. His children are well-fed, clean, clearly loved, cared and provided for. This is a happy home, if a home can be summarized simply as such. The feeling is warm and idyllic. You could say Edenic.
Then, late one night, Dad wakes his boys. Lovingly (so very lovingly) he tells them that God has given him a vision: there are demons out there, walking in the world. God Almighty has bestowed on their family the task of dispatching the demons via “magical weapons,” which will present themselves to the family when the time is right.
…And only Dad knows who the demons are.
…And he knows because Dad gets the true names of these demons in visions from God that no one else can see. He writes them down. He makes a list. A list of demons.
…And these demons don’t look like demons (not to Dad, not to his sons, and not to us, the audience).
They look just like people. They look just like innocent people.
Innocent people who beg and plead and weep in fear, even as Dad’s “magical” hatchet comes down right on their heads.
“You’ll see. Then you’ll believe,” Dad tells his boys—but while younger Adam accepts his father’s story without question, older Fenton quickly begins to question his father’s sanity. Refusing to call it murder, Dad begins “destroying” these supposed demons by chopping them down with an axe and lovingly urging his sons to join his appointed crusade. A battle of will soon commences between Dad, who believes with a ferocious and disarmingly moral-seeming conviction in the truth of his supernatural calling, and Fenton, who is determined to stop his father from killing.
…And then Dad gets a new message from God, about Fenton.
Frailty is a twisty and harrowing film, never winking at or moving to reassure its audience. It gives no easy outs, no pat moralizing, no comfort in gaudy supernatural spectacle to reassure us that what we’re watching isn’t a family’s hellish descent into terrible madness. It approaches its darkly gothic premise with realism, restraint, and utter sincerity, grounding the viewer in Fenton’s increasingly horrified point of view as he’s presented with a binary choice between a loving but dangerously insane father trying to turn his sons into religiously motivated murderers, or a world in which hell is real, demons walk the earth, and a 10-year-old boy is saddled with the obligation to kill those (perfectly human-looking) demons.
For the bulk of its running time, Frailty derives substantial fear from the sheer fact of Dad’s loving and horrible certainty in the latter; his unshakeable belief in a profoundly dark, supernatural dimension to the universe despite having no hard evidence to support that belief. There are no portals or energy beams or roaring hellbeasts in this film; it needs no supernatural trappings to transfix in its unflinching portrait of a man’s descent into a fundamentalist madness; Dad moves through the film, sons in tow, “destroying” people based on some vaguely hand-waved divine list he’s receiving. Maybe they’re “bad” people in some way. Still, they’re very obviously not sporting horns or tails, and murderous vigilantes are generally frowned upon. All of Dad’s victims seem very much like normal people, sniveling and begging for their lives before being slaughtered by a religious zealot who is operating entirely outside of the law and actively trying to involve his own sons in the killings. It’s shockingly awful, and it’s shockingly compelling as horror because Paxton’s character—who remains so upsettingly loving and so fatherly throughout—clearly, sincerely believes in what he’s doing.
Frailty’s conviction is as absolute as its sincerity. The film unblinkingly presents a good man who is asked to do terrible things in the name of the Lord, and who does them—not out of any malice or hate, but out of a bone-deep, sincere desire to serve God. It places that man in the same unthinkable position as Abraham, commanded by a divine power to kill his own son, and in showing Dad’s Abrahamic struggle from his son’s point of view, the film creates real discord between sympathy for Paxton and fear of him.
That sense of discord permeates the film, which unnerves further because of how Dad’s visions of the “supernatural” both (1) encourage a scarily violent fanaticism that doesn’t respond to pleas or reason, and also (2) mostly resemble the kind of low-key “divine experiences” Christians in general have in our own world; experiences in which God’s presence might be glimpsed—not in an overt pyrotechnical display, but in the diamond glint of daylight on a sun-soaked bowling trophy. Dad’s sudden religious epiphany and subsequent evangelical certainty in the film work so well as horror precisely because they are queasily believable as real-world fanaticism, not the actions of a man who has been genuinely touched by God. Viewers are given no real evidence that Paxton has had a genuine encounter with the supernatural. Even Dad’s initial vision, in which the underside of a car reshapes itself into a cathedral and an angel with a fiery sword descends to impart God’s message (a gorgeous and strange visual that was filmed on a shoestring), plays as taking place entirely in Paxton’s head. Fenton’s growing fear and hysteria are all too justified based on the total absence of evidence he’s given.
For close to its entire runtime, Frailty is a darkly gothic, genuinely disturbing, faith-based psychological thriller. But our understanding of the film is upended in its final minutes, demanding a second viewing if only to see how the pieces have fallen together. Frailty ends by telling us, via a simple handshake, that what we’ve just watched isn’t simply a psychological horror movie about a man and his family spiraling into religious mania and madness. It ends by suggesting that Dad was right—he really was smiting the wicked at God’s command. Demons really are walking the earth. God is empowering people like Dad to destroy them—no matter the cost to their families and loved ones. Early in the film, as Paxton is explaining that they are going to be destroying demons now, his younger son asks if they’re “like superheroes,” and Dad tells him that they are. In a sense, Frailty is perhaps the darkest “superhero origin” movie ever made—one in which Great Power comes with Great Responsibility… to kill in the name of The Lord.
The emergence of the supernatural at the end of the film demands a second viewing, during which the film changes significantly. Suddenly the supernatural is really there in Dad’s visions, which take on the feel of dark magical realism: the visitation of the Angel, the way a trophy glints in the light, the quality of sunshine that descends on the barn where Dad discovers his weapons. The film sidesteps entirely grandiose displays of effects work in favor of grounding the narrative in the world of the modern believer—a world without literal monsters and absent blatant miracles, as objective and subjective as sanity. And by eschewing the overtly supernatural, Paxton’s film somehow ends up summoning a stronger sense of magic when viewed the second time around. The film goes from being terrifying for utterly human reasons to being terrifying because it claws the rug out from under us to expose a yawning darkness beneath—a darkness in which God moves, waiting to cast his judgment, to demand his sacrifice of every Abraham; a world in which the word demon remains an unclear, undefined term that could mean a literal evil supernatural entity such as one traditionally conceives or could also just mean “person who does some thing(s) terrible in God’s eyes”; a world in which the word supernatural isn’t associated with lightshows, or CGI beasties, but with the quiet, relentless, unseen will of the Almighty, which guides the hands of followers to smite the wicked upon the earth.
Frailty introduces itself as a film which explores the horror of unthinking belief in the supernatural. By the time the film ends, it has become a film about the horror of having one’s faith in the supernatural affirmed; the fear of having God speak to you as he spoke to Abraham. One response to the enormity, power, and sheer Otherness of God is fear. Per Proverbs, that’s the beginning of wisdom. The God of the Old Testament is many things to many people, but what is inarguable is his portrayal in that book as the sort of deity who tells you to kill the members of your family, who barters over how many good people need inhabit a location in order for God not to destroy it, and who destroys a man’s life on a wager, only to tell that man to take a flying leap when that man justifiably seeks answers for his suffering.
A real and eerie supernaturalism invades the film in its final moments, shattering our ideas of what has come before and creating a new level of horror that’s especially discomfiting to Christians who may hold beliefs less… stringent than those displayed on the screen. It raises questions that unnerve believers and non-believers alike: What if God is bloodier and darker and more demanding than we want God to be? What if God’s enemies are far darker and bloodier still, and out there in the world among us, unseen? What if we’re engaged in some sort of literal supernatural warfare?
What if the zealots are right?
That’s the hidden, chilling core of Frailty’s story: that at least some of the people who claim to kill for God might not be psychotic, but rather faithfully carrying out God’s will. Frailty gives us a vision of what that God would look like, awake and subtly at work out in the world, and that vision is wonderfully haunting.