Frailty (US - BD)
Gabe has dreams where Angels tell him to get off the couch and get a job...
Fenton Meiks (Matthew McConaughey) walks into a Dallas police department and announces that his brother Adam is a serial murderer known as the ‘God’s Hand’ killer. The local FBI agent (Powers Boothe) is at suspicious at first, so Fenton weaves him a disturbing flashback through his childhood. Fenton and Adams father believed he was visited by God, and told to hunt and destroy demons, which he said were disguised as normal people. Dad involves his sons in the process, which includes kidnapping, bodily dismemberment via an axe named Otis, and burial in a rose garden.
Though clearly a work of psychological horror in genre, Frailty works best as a tragedy, which is not always the case for the (sub)genre. The schizophrenic serial killing in the name of ‘God’ angle isn’t particularly special, but the family angle adds an especially disturbing and relatable context, one not explored in any other genre films I can recover from the top of my head. The terror inherent in a violent and/or deranged family member is pretty likely a universal constant, and the fact that Bill Paxton plays ‘Dad’ as a generally good man and father makes things all the more upsetting. The film doesn’t creep down the audience’s spine because of nerve-wracking violence (almost all the gore is off screen), or a teeth gnashing, lip licking villain, it scares us through love and faith. Paxton, who also directed the film, goes out of his way to keep the villain even keeled, and shots the film through a very old-fashioned eye. Even without Brent Hanley’s intelligent script, Frailty would be a remarkable piece of thriller pulp because of Paxton’s choices in subtlety.
Looking at the film after years away, I think Frailty might have been better served without the flashback motif and narration. The storytelling aspect makes the story efficient, and McConaughey doesn’t falter concerning the dialogue, but textually explaining the more subtle pieces of the story robs it of some of the creeping unease of the situation. Watching the film again makes me think that the whole of McConaughey’s scenes are present for the sake of the multi-twist finale, which is arguably superfluous. The coda also robs the story of some of its beautifully unsettling ambiguity. I’d like to discuss the twists further, but they’re twists, so I don’t want to spoil anyone. I’ll just cautiously point out that the ending makes reading the text from two points of view all but impossible. As someone who isn’t religious, or particularly frightened by supernatural elements, I prefer sticking with the realist reading. A more definitive supernatural conclusion just isn’t as interesting, and the last act doesn’t leave as much to the imagination.
The one side effect of the flashback structure I wouldn’t dare alter is the resulting time period. The Southern-fried atmosphere is an indelible piece of the film, but the late ‘70s create a sense of isolation that wouldn’t work in a modern setting. And there is a definite advantage in re-watching the film, beyond working out the twists. There’s an entire smorgasbord of subtle visual cues worked into the fabric of the narrative. At first glance Paxton’s direction may seem stilted, or even pretentiously gentle, but there use of religious and blatantly gothic iconography is easy to miss, as are some incredibly understated pans that express unspoken thoughts, especially from Fenton’s point of view. The twists themselves are definitely devalued on additional viewings (as is the norm), and as you can see, I’m second guessing their real value, but Paxton’s professional and thoughtful direction has more to offer than first meets the eye.
Frailty isn’t quite the triumph on Blu-ray fans may have been hoping for. The overall film is pretty soft, and it appears that a lot of the harder lighting has been diffused. The softness appears at least partially done on purpose, but appears to have been aided a bit by those occasionally over-eager DNR hands at Lionsgate. Grain is present, and not as fine as it is on more grainy Blu-ray discs. Softness aside, the details are reasonably sharp, but somewhat inconsistent. Low lit scenes are obviously more muddied and grainy, but plenty of well lit, outdoor scenes are affected by minor edge-enhancement, and a loss of clarity in the backgrounds. The set shot bits, especially those in close-up, are worth the upgrade for fans. Paxton doesn’t seem to be hugely preoccupied with colour, though there is a blue tint over the night scenes, and a bit of a yellow twinge to the daylight scenes. There’s a bit of noise and impurity to the colours we have, and not enough poppy highlights to fully judge the disc’s colour capabilities, but plainly speaking the hues are natural. The use of shadows is more important, and the blacks here are clean and deep.
Frailty is an older film, and it was modestly priced, so the quality of this particular DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 track goes as a bit of a surprise. Despite a lack of supernatural elements, or even much of what we’d consider action, every channel is active throughout the mix, sometimes subtly, sometimes very aggressively. Worthy audio moments include the flaming angel vision, the scene where Paxton touches the ‘demons’ revealing their ‘sins’, and plenty of punchy, bassy fright cues. The scenes where the family buries their bodies are consistently quite lively, featuring five channels worth of chirping frogs, and (not to mention an unintentionally humorous stereo effect involving a severed head). The rear channels are also plenty lively between swishing scene changes. Frailty was one of composer Brian Tyler’s first major films. Tyler is more or less the go to guy for professional film scores on a budget these days, especially for Lionsgate. This particular score sees him playing with aggressive bow to string clacks.
The extras on this disc were all previously available with the DVD version, but there’s plenty here to fill a fan’s time, including three feature length commentaries. The first track features director/star Bill Paxton, who is a little mechanical in his approach, but still quite warm and even. Paxton bores a bit with the more technical stuff, but quickly falls into tangential anecdotes, and these make the difference. The second track features producer David Kirschner, editor Arnold Glassman and composer Brian Tyler, who repeat a lot of Paxton’s overall thoughts and memories. Tyler’s efforts are appreciated, however, as he adds to discussion with quite a bit of humour. The last track features writer Brent Hanley, who’s got the enthusiasm and the voice to entertain, even when he isn’t really saying anything. I’m personally surprised that no one on any of these tracks chooses to view the film’s themes and twists as at all ambiguous.
‘The Making of Frailty’ (19:30, SD) is a simple, but effecting made for DVD featurette, that mixes reasonably fluffy cast and crew interviews with raw behind the scenes footage and choice cuts from the film. The usual stuff is covered, including pre-production, writing, casting, production, production art and storyboards, cinematography and props. Watching Paxton act and direct at the same time is a highlight. This is augmented with a Sundance Channel ‘Anatomy of a Scene’ featurette (26:00, SD), which lies somewhere between spoiler heavy trailer, and genuine look at the production of a single scene. The disc is finished off with five deleted scenes (08:30, SD), with optional Paxton commentary, and trailers.
Fans of the CW television series Supernatural might want to give Frailty special notice, if they haven’t seen it already. The basic set up is eerily identical. The rest of you might want to give it shot too, it’s a solid thriller, and underappreciated. The Blu-ray release isn’t a huge upgrade from the DVD release, but it is an upgrade, especially the lossless 7.1 audio. There are no new retrospective extras, but the multiple audio commentaries are still pretty satisfying, and the brief making-of featurettes are better than the average EPK fluff.
* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 24th November 2009
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 French
Subtitles: English SHD, Spanish
Extras: Director Commentary, Production Commentary, Writer Commentary, Anatomy of a Scene, The Making of Frailty, Storyboards, Image Gallery, Trailers
Easter Egg: No
Director: Bill Paxton
Cast: Bill Paxton, Matthew McConaughey, Powers Boothe, Matt O'Leary, Jeremy Sumpter
Length: 100 minutes
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