Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Retrospective Review: Frailty

" May God welcome you, and keep you."

Frailty is a film that crept under my skin over time. At first I remember being very impressed, even taken aback by how good it was, but I had to allow for the fact that I watched it alone at 2AM in otherwise deserted house. So I had to factor in a tired delirium and a favoring atmosphere. But the more I thought about it, the ideas it had played with and how strong the performances were, the film's reputation within the confines of my mind was rising, until I'd has all the mental chinese whispers I could take and watched it again. And do you know what, I'm tempted to call this film the forgotten great of the 2000's, a film so enjoyably rich that despite rough edges, is worth going to the mat for. Maybe because it pushes so many of my movie going buttons, I'm inclined to be a little kinder to it then it possibly deserves, although to be clear it deserves a lot of kindness. A fantastic southern gothic noir fused with a slasher movie, it manages to be a horror story about its characters, that gets you to invest in them and their journey. Violence is present, but its gore is not the point. Its about a family that loves each other, and how violence tears them apart. As far as I'm concerned that's the best kind of horror movie, where the horror serves the story rather then being the point in and of itself. It allows me to forgive whatever roughness around the edges there are in Frailty. And if I'm being honest there are a few, possibly an entire storyline, But if anything deserves to be more then a sum of its parts its Frailty, a film with more balls then most and evidence that Bill ' YOU CAN COUNT ME OUT!' Paxton may be this generation's Charles Laughton.

To explain that obnoxiously obscure reference, Laughton was an enormously successful actor back in the day, most famous for playing Henry VII, when movies were as old people wish they could be forever. The man took one stab at directing, and came out with the dark, southern Gothic masterpiece 'The Night Of The Hunter', A movie I love to the point where it might be inadvisable. Featuring a career best Robert Mitchum as psychopathic preacher, Rev. Harry Powell who pursues two children through the wilderness after killing their mother. It was ahead of its time, made abundantly clear by the way nobody saw it, it was a gigantic flop and Laughton vowed to never make a film again. And he didn't. I'm not quite ready to say that Frailty is as good as that film is, but of the many films that played on it, Frailty comes closest to achieving its success, becoming a dark look at the values of the south, from Religion to family to morally justified violence.

" You're my son, and I love you more than my own life."

Paxton plays single father to two sons, living out an unassuming life in which he's a mechanic and they get C grades from school. But one night, Paxton wakes his kids up and tells them that he's been given a mandate from God, told by the almighty the end is coming and its his job to hunt demons as judgement day approaches. Whilst his younger son Adam buys into this entirely, his older son Fenton begins to think his loving attentive father has gone insane. Horror is often about the break-up of the family unit, but what I love about Frailty is that Paxton's religious mania doesn't take away his positive qualities, in the eyes of the viewer and of his children, he's still the same great man. Just now he kills people. A trick it pulls by placing you in Fenton's shoes, and taking that real life moment of when you realize your parents word isn't gospel, and twisting it to create something horrifying. Taking a safe place and invading it with corruption and dread. But alas, nobody saw it and Bill Paxton fucked off to play a Mormon on HBO's Big Love.

Paxton is an easy actor to mock. There's his endlessly quotable role in Aliens of course, which the world has kind of turned on in the last decade. There's a couple of vapid attempts an leading man in things such as Twister and Vertical Limit, sure. But there's also his terrific, psychopathic vampire Severen in Near Dark, there's his solemn and affecting performance in quote Sam Raimi's best film A Simple Plan unquote. One could even point to True Lies and say he's the best thing about a colossal mess of a movie. He's a much more interesting actor then people realize, and that's never more apparent than his performance in Frailty. Which has no precedence, even if you're a fan of the man's work. It's such a thoughtful take on crazy, a man torn between what he believes and what he loves, and Paxton gives the character such a sense of dignity, of sincerity, that you can't help but empathize with him. If there was a time when Bill Paxton deserves an Oscar nomination was ever at its least ridiculous, then it was here. A word too for Matt O' Leary, who gives a very strong, mature performance in a difficult role as Fenton. Even Reign Of Fire's Matthew McConaughey turns in a good performance, yet again demonstrating if he wasn't such an all purpose paycheck whore he can be a very good actor.

" Are We Superheroes Dad?"

Frailty is not without its flaws though. The film is split up into two narratives, there's the flashback to young Fenton's dilemma, whilst we see the elder, McConaughey shaped Fenton detailing the story to and FBI Agent. I think film would have been stronger if it had entirely ditched the McConaughey stuff. Not because there's anything wrong with him, but because it does take away some of the urgency and claustrophobia out of the film that we can keep cutting away to the FBI Office whenever things get too intense. In a way it shows a lack of conviction, and I'm certain that if this film had been solely about its central narrative, without the need to dress it with a flashback structure or a well-written but entirely superfluous voice-over, it would have been even more effective. Similarly the film has an ending that will certainly polarize, I found it to be effective if a little unnecessary, but I imagine it will ruin the film for some. And that's an understandable response.

But Frailty is such an ambitious, bold work that I can forgive some structural woes and wheel-spinning. I can forgive that it got slightly caught up in the early 00's Sixth Sense fueled twist phase, in which gut-punching your audience became more important then telling a coherent story, or the fact that maybe one or two more drafts of the script might not have hurt. As it stands, the execution probably doesn't match the ambition, the ideas perhaps more gripping than what is done with them. But in spite of that, whenever its in that house with that family then it becomes one of the most potent, intelligent horror films simply because the nightmare is set against normalcy and they do everything we do. Its a film that is vastly more concerned with character then scares and thus becomes a unique, disturbing experience exactly because it let it evolve out of something honest. Or just because its awesome.

Rating: 8/10

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