Frailty (2002): ***
Directed by Bill Paxton
Judging on this, his first film, Bill Paxton could have a fantastic career as a director. This film is very well directed. Not only does it get the mood of the period it (mostly) takes place in, but the sense of oppressive dread and madness that hangs over it all is palpable and truly horrifying.
The structure of the film is actually very similar to The Usual Suspects. It starts with a kind of FBI interrogation of a young man who says his brother is a serial killer. As the man tells the story of why he believes this, we get to witness his childhood in a series of flashbacks.
Basically the meat of the film takes place in the 70s. Bill Paxton plays a single dad of the two youngish sons. One day he wakes his children up in the middle of the night and says that God told him to kill people who are actually demons. Thus begins a horrifying series of murders in which the dad kidnaps people, brings them home, and actually forces his children to watch him kill them.
This is absolutely horrifying, and Bill Paxton doesn't pull his punches very much. He wisely chooses not to show the gore of axe murdering, but focuses usually on the faces and reactions of the two sons, who are both absolutely phenomenal actors. The story begins to delve into how these two children react differently to their father becoming seemingly an insane muderer. The older one finds it harder and harder to let his father continue to murder peopler, while the younger one delves deeper and deeper into blind faith and unconditional trust in his father, putting the brothers at odds with each other as their lives spiral further into horror and madness.
Unfortunately I guess the screenwriter didn't trust that that was enough. In yet another Usual Suspects link, instead of focusing on the horror and madness inflicted upon these children, the screenplay starts focusing on the present day framing story, revealing a series of "shocking" twists about character identity and blah, blah. It really didn't need it, and I personally think that it robs a lot of the focus and therefore power away from the actual story of the filmhow two children deal with absolute horror being injected into thier daily lives.
The end of the film also seems to answer too definitively the question about whether the father was simply mad or actually getting messages from God. The children have to deal with the shifting uncertainties of their father's condition, so I think it would be better if we had to leave the film uncertain and uncomforted by an actual answer to the problem. It would have made the experience of this film even more unsettling.
There are some mysteries that are more satisfying if they're not solved. This film should have been one of them.
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