`Frailty' delivers a fragile movie
By MELISSA RAUCH and PAUL CAMARATA
Scene Movie Critics
Mel (MR) and Paul (PC) bought their last "Two Tickets" of the semester, expecting to simply review the new suspense thriller "Frailty" starring Bill Paxton in his directorial debut. They received the unexpected bonus of an opportunity to rekindle one of cinema's greatest debates: Paxton or Pullman? You be the judge.
PC: Just before the lights went down on the opening of "Frailty," I said to Mel how I had no idea what the movie was about. Not the plot, the cast, not the director. I was in the dark before the theater was. She giggled with glee, having read all about the production on one of her obscure Hollywood Web sites.
MR: You lie. The first time I heard about this movie was at the 'Backer last weekend when fellow Scene critic and Delroy Lindo-lover Tom O'Connell came up to me and asked if we wanted to "go see a wacko Bill Paxton movie." With this brief but juicy description, how could I say no? I had wanted to see "Kissing Jessica Stein" based on a recommendation of the divine Ms. Anne Abbott ...
PC: Of "Hello Gorgeous!" fame?
MR: The same. But we live in South Bend where the choices were Sandra Bullock, The Rock or Mr. Paxton. I think we made the right decision.
PC: Sure Paxton had that great vomit scene in "Apollo 13," but that doesn't mean he should be starring in and directing his own full-length feature. Apparently, the producers didn't seem to mind. In "Frailty," Paxton plays Papa Meiks, the father in Matthew McConaughey's flashback of his twisted Thurman, Texas childhood. It's "The Apostle" meets "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" as a divine messenger informs Meiks that he and his two sons have been chosen to enact God's will on Earth. After that memo, Paxton goes on a zealous search-and-destroy mission of several "demons" disguised as humans. Meiks justifies his violence with the kind of religious resolve that harkens back to such good old times as the Spanish Inquisition and the Salem Witch trials, only he finds his faith (clap-clap-clap-clap) deep in the heart of Texas.
MR: It's always the last place you look, but let's not spend another column deriding the Lone Star state. Getting back to the movie, it was a probably a good thing we didn't know too much about it beforehand. It's a dark thriller that plays on suspense so the less prior information the better. From the opening sequence, which features a slow montage of grisly newspaper headlines set to effectively creepy music, the audience is ready for a good murder mystery. The premise definitely sounds outlandish, but it hooked me as soon as the flashback story began. As with all suspense movies, you expect twists and turns along the way. While I predicted a few, there were definitely still some surprises I didn't see coming.
PC: The plot walks a fine line between gruesome tension and horror film nonsense and all because of Paxton's vague persona. There's a chipperness about him that never completely disappears, so that even at his angriest of moments Paxton never really flares his nostrils or instills the fear that maybe he should. This aloofness strikes me more as his normal acting style than as an achievement he made in this particular film, but it did serve to obscure, if not conceal, the development of the plot. There's just something about his performance, though, something missing ...
MR: Go ahead.
PC: Go ahead, what?
MR: I know what you're thinking.
MR: That Ray Liotta would have done a much better job in the role.
PC: Well if you're twisting my arm, Liotta does have the old "Ray-Liotta-look-in-his-eye." But movie audiences know they have to take the lukewarm performances with the scintillating ones.
MR: While it's true Paxton bears that stigma of goofiness or, perhaps, bad acting, I think it works for him in "Frailty" because you have to figure out whether his character is completely nuts or fulfilling his mission from God. Some people probably thought the Blues Brothers were crazy too. As for the rest of the cast, the young boys playing the Meiks brothers in the flashback both perform well in their reactions to the horror surrounding them. Matt O'Leary, who gets the special "Introducing Matt O'Leary" honor in the opening credits, especially stands out as older brother Fenton, the skeptic who sees his father as a deranged killer rather than righteous hero.
PC: And let's not forget actor Powers Booth, the poor man's Tommy Lee Jones, as the FBI agent to whom McConaughey relates the story. McConaughey himself departs from his more typical role as the heartthrob, adding a veil of darkness and uncertainty from the first scene in which he appears in Booth's Dallas office. It's a solid demonstration of his range, though he does have the luxury of amplifying his natural Texan accent in order to create ambiguity about his character's character. Not that it gives me any more insight into the ultimate aspiration for this film. When the lights came on at the end, I was still in the dark.
MR: Sure, the movie's not going to change your life, but it manages to raise some interesting questions while it entertains. While Daddy Meiks appears off his rocker from the get-go, one still wonders about the moral implications of becoming a killer in order to be a savior. You know, like Buffy.
PC: Buffy who?
MR: The Vampire Slayer.
PC: Ahh, and here I thought we were going to finish our final column without you ever espousing the virtue of that [expletive] show. No such luck. "Frailty" creates a realistic framework in which to probe such questions because it relies only on human tension and action to make its effect rather than straying too far into a supernatural world of magical realism. How much it actually contributes to such a debate is questionable, not to mention that I'm not sure what the film's title is supposed to mean.
MR: I can't comment on your first observation without giving away the ending and as for the title, I think it has something to do with the weakness of the human mind, how well it can handle such disturbing messages before going off the deep end. All I know is: "Frailty," thy name is Paxton.
Though their final review includes shout-outs that are irrelevant to 99 percent of the Notre Dame community, Mel and Paul would nonetheless like to thank their readers. Though their original headshot photo developed quite a cult following, they assure you it will never be seen again. Plus, it's really small potatoes compared to that Gocke-Driver yearbook candid.
They can be contacted at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org. Until then, let go and let weather.
All Scene Stories for Thursday, April 25, 2002