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Kids and killing make creepy mix in 'Frailty'

Friday, April 12, 2002

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

It's hard to shake the chill that descends on you, like a clammy fog, while watching "Frailty" and driving home in the dark.


RATING: R for violence and some language.

STARRING: Bill Paxton, Matthew McConaughey, Powers Boothe

DIRECTOR: Bill Paxton

WEB SITE: www.frailtythefilm.com



But it's also hard to shake the feeling that it's distasteful and disturbing to watch a movie about a serial killer that involves children. Not as victims, but as unwilling and willing accomplices who, at ages 12 and 9, consider following in their father's footsteps and picking up an ax and aiming it at a nearby neck. All in the name of God.

"Frailty" opens on the quintessential dark and stormy night as a stranger (Matthew McConaughey) arrives at the Dallas FBI office claiming to know the identity of the "God's Hand" serial killer. He asks to see Wesley Doyle (Powers Boothe), the agent in charge of the case, declares that his brother Adam Meiks is the killer and then proceeds to spin a twisted tale that starts in 1979.

Twelve-year-old Fenton (Matthew O'Leary) and 9-year-old Adam (Jeremy Sumpter) are being raised in a small Texas town by their widowed father (Bill Paxton), a good-hearted and patient mechanic. However, everything changes one night when Dad wakes up the boys to tell them about his heavenly vision. An angel appeared to him, said the end of the world was near and that there were demons among them. They have been chosen to serve as "God's hands" and destroy the demons.

As their father starts working his way through some heaven-sent list, Fenton tries to convince Adam they must run away, but the younger boy believes they are God's servants and doing his bidding. Everyone ends up paying a very high price for belief or defiance of the demon-slaying mission.

As has become de rigueur in thrillers such as this, "Frailty" has more than its share of twists -- some of which you might see coming like that ax with the name "Otis" carved into it, some of which may take you by surprise.

"Frailty," which refers to the frailty of human perception, is the first feature film by Brent Hanley, and he's of the more-is-more suspense school of writing. He leads you to believe that murder, at least in 1979, is a far easier crime to commit than you might imagine. He provides no motive for one key killing and he wants us to believe that an FBI agent would not call in colleagues, even in the middle of the night, on a serial killer case. But Hanley reels us in and proves he's a writer to watch.

"Frailty" marks the directorial debut of Paxton, who says, in the press notes, that he worried that a "wild-eyed director would get hold of this material and sensationalize it just to shock people. And that, to me, wouldn't do the script justice." He may not show us the actual ax slicing through a neck, for instance, but he makes sure we hear every lead pipe smacking into a skull or see flying flecks of blood.

And if you want to see "Frailty," see it in the theater. Light or the lack thereof is used to set the mood, but some scenes are almost too dark while others border on muddy.

Despite the presence of such veterans as Paxton, Boothe and McConaughey, who turns off the romantic-comedy charm and turns on his serious acting skills, it's young Matthew O'Leary as Fenton who is the standout. He makes you feel his character's confusion, horror, stubbornness and desperation as he fights either God's commands or man's insanity.

I love a good Gothic thriller as much as the next person, but the age and abuse of the children and the religious subtext left me uneasy. Maybe that's a good thing. Or maybe it's just a killer distraction.

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