What you believe and what you know: some envision these two sources in confluence like the twin mouths of a river. Amidst the thankless difficulties incumbent upon those of us who do believe to prove that our beliefs are justified (belief by definition cannot be proven, but no one seems to listen to that argument), we are confronted by moments of terror and, I daresay, hallucinatory images. For brief interstices in time we sense what is in others, what makes them tick, what they see as right and wrong; in short, we see their dreams, wishes, fears, and hopes. These glimpses into our fellow men and women are necessarily rapid, almost flash-like. Are they the truth about that person?
This device is old hat in fiction, especially in short stories where characters are often defined by a single gesture, a repeated word, a facial expression when no one else is supposed to be looking. And what do we think we see, deluded beasts that we are? That will depend on a number of factors, most of which can be easily dispelled by modern science as irrational or unreal. Perhaps that nice middle-aged neighbor who always sports a crooked smile in the window of her nice middle-aged house has a different agenda when handling her children, or talking to her sister, or dealing with the much younger and prettier woman who just pinched her husband. And that high school dropout, a young man who listens to violent music and wears violent clothes, perhaps he is just a lonely soul in search of acceptance, even if acceptance means leaping into the bottomless cesspool of nonconformity. Which of these two would law enforcement authorities have an easier time picturing as a criminal? Who knows what evil lurks in the heart of men? Using a most original format, this film attempts to answer that strange question.
There are four characters of note, two brothers, Fenton and Adam Meiks, their widower Father (Bill Paxton), and the FBI agent Wesley Doyle (Powers Boothe), who one warm night is approached in his office by a grownup Fenton (Matthew McConaughey). Fenton has a rather nasty confession to make: he knows the identity of the serial murderer known as the God’s Hand Killer because that person is none other than his own brother. The film alternates between flashbacks, as recounted by Fenton to Doyle, of the boys’ childhood with their Father and the present day, where the two men sit gaming details out of one another that could only be known by the police, the killer, or someone who, like Fenton, abetted his brother by not stopping him. Doyle asks and receives pertinent information, but never considers the possibility that the person sitting in front of him might be much smarter than he is. But the thought crosses our mind, as do other thoughts. And knowing that we may be missing something, we turn our attention to the flashbacks.
This is where Frailty distinguishes itself from all other films of its genre, if it can fairly stuffed into just one pigeonhole. Fenton tells Doyle about his Father, a man of great faith who was informed by God that he had a mission: to seek out those who have grossly violated divine law and to mete out punishment with an axe. When their Father touches someone, he can see within their conscience and determine what if any crimes lie hidden. The kicker is that Father Meiks also enlists his two young boys, who could not possibly wield as tempered a sense of right and wrong, to help him in his vigilante pursuits. At this point, the viewer has a choice. Either the Father is mad and we must look on this production as thinly-veiled satire or misled manipulation, or the director, writer, and protagonist (all of whom happen to be Paxton) are obsessed with showing us a side of man that is so primal as to be forgotten in our modern day of hedging, relativity, and cultural sensitivity: that of moral justice. There is no trick dialogue or occultism. What we witness is theurgy in its extreme form, as the film proposes a storyline ingrained in an impossible belief and then follows that trail into darkness from which there cannot be any return. One image, an image above all other images, is seen towards the end that justifies the actions of one of the characters, and I have never been able to remove that image from my head. Nor have I tried.