The Great Villain Blogathon: The Frailty of Villainy
When deciding what to write about for the Great Villain Blogathon Frailty jumped out immediately. The reason for this is not that there’s nothing necessarily unique about the antagonist(s) within the narrative, nor in the fact that there is some role reversal, but rather in how that comes about and the approaches to it.
That is what makes Frailty such an interesting film to examine in this topic. The mandatory SPOILER ALERT applies that if you have not seen this film you should cease reading now as the film will be discussed in depth.
For a horror film to thrive its villain(s) need to be effective, for the villains to be effective they need to have a potentially horrific foundation upon which to work. This is a film that offers quite a bit of solid ground to tread upon for not only does the paradigm of the narrative shift fairly often, but in terms of its crafting there are fascinating things to consider. Frailty, for as vague as it may sound, is exactly the title this film needs for whether it’s the frailty of life, the human spirit, religious belief, sanity, and even reality; any weakness, any fissure, any breaks can have dire consequences. Frailty examines such consequences.
This is one of the more frequently overlooked turns by a director/lead actor (Bill Paxton), a fact underscored by his untimely death earlier this year. When you include the fact that it was a first feature film credit for both he and screenwriter Brent Hanley, then the unlikeliness of the creation of what Roger Ebert rated a four-star film is multiplied.
Another thing that jumped out at me was that this is not unlike a story I would’ve written in my late teens or early twenties, thematically speaking. However, if one takes a look at an early draft one can see a majority of an excellent script in tact that was improved to increase surprise and pay-off, and build mystery.
The film gives the sense of Biblical verses clashing without getting into pulpit-pounding, even with all the talk of God, angels, and demons it remains character driven. In true-to-theology fashion fear and disbelief the two most common reactions these characters have to Biblical figures hearing messages from angels. The talk of “are we destroying demons or killing people” in family may get over but the director’s voice could come through in a less obvious in a clip fro the show Davey and Goliath where the discuss the notion of God making people do things or something happen in a very thoughtful way. The allusion to the story of Abraham and Isaac is very properly included and underscores the Old Testament sensibility of the film.
There is built on a bed of lies a dramatic shell game of names, and antagonists. Fenton Meiks (Matthew McConaughey) comes into the FBI building wanting to see Agent Doyle (Powers Booth) who is in charge of the God’s Hand case, a rash of serial killings linked by notes claiming that “God’s hand was at work.” When Fenton finally gets to see Doyle he starts weaving his tale of how his brother Adam is the God’s Hand killer, and has recently committed suicide. Doyle is doubtful, which sets up the necessary and well-handled element of doubt in this story, but agrees to listen for a time. This disbelief is reflected in the flashback with Fenton as faith and disbelief go hand in hand. He flashes back to when he (Matt O’Leary) and Adam (Jeremy Sumpter) were kids and how the story of the case really started with their father (Bill Paxton). As wild as the story is, at critical junctures gets satisfactory corroborations from others, such that Doyle keeps listening.
In this frame you have the introduction of an unreliable narrator, which a classic literary and cinematic device, but that’s not the only trick in store just perhaps the most surprising one of all. The biggest twist of the proceedings is that the man who presents himself as Fenton is actually Adam all along.
Crafting a Villains and Shifting Them
In this film, as you may be able to tell above, plot and character are very closely intertwined such that the changes in the story invariably alter how the audience may react to characters. The film in its flashback gives you what you think is a protagonist you can root for, one whose fighting the good fight. Well, you do have him in Young Fenton. He doesn’t believe the story his father is trying to sell him and who his younger brother seems far too eager to believe. But this tale is tragic in a sense. Young Fenton will not save the day, he will survive his childhood (barely) but he will be dead within minutes of the film having started.
In a world where you’re unsure if anyone is honest is where the line between villain and anti-hero is a little blurred, where demons may or may not exist; there is an additional onus on the casting not only for the adult versions of the characters but who plays their younger versions. Three out of the four are of vital importance and cast with the utmost precision.
The hard to properly attribute truism that every villain is the hero of their own story is very applicable to this film. For this film to communicate effectively with its audience all the actors had to connect with their characters and understand the world from their character’s truth. It is only in this way they can hope to be dimensional human beings, rise above caricatures, and have a far more primal, deeper impact on its audience. Having a talented actor such as Bill Paxton directing the film certainly helped the cast and allowed them to expand the potential of their roles: it brought Matthew McConaughey his best performance prior to his McConaissance; a deft turn from Powers Booth; a well-earned ‘Introducing’ credit for Matt O’Leary who is spellbinding; a deceptively good pre-Peter Pan turn from Jeremy Sumpter; and a chillingly effective, and convincingly convicted self-directed role for Paxton.
Yet, to minimize Paxton’s directorial effect to just performance would be wrong. A grasp of narrative and material is needed to successfully shift the audience’s view of a character, or at the very least to successfully pull of a story twist. Furthermore, there are plenty of great visuals that drive home whether its Young Fenton fearfully stepping back into the dark, Young Fenton standing between Dad and the ax, Young Fenton seeking light and water through the knothole, the odes to Hitchcock — Young Fenton’s dismembered head against negative fill, and the dolly back-zoom in at the end — and graceful dissolves that may have impressed Truffaut.
Also, for the perception of the characters to change frequently the circumstances of the story have to change, which means that the story cannot hinge on just one big twist but have quite a few; and this one does: Fenton kills dad not the demon he’s meant to, which the audience both doesn’t necessarily expect and is glad for, making him momentarily heroic. Adam finishes the kill that dad can’t complete, sending not just a momentary jolt through the audience but breaking the relief that may have come over the audience. We know things are not yet resolved or over just because dad is gone. The twists come until the very end when we learn that Adam is the Sheriff in Meat, Texas.
In this film you go from identifying Fenton to watching his downfall, the zealous end of a patriarch’s life, and the transformation of Adam from complete innocent into acolyte. His typically quiet observance of events as a child make him a hard one to read and that foreshadows his ability to tell the story from another perspective so convincingly. Not that it’s entirely unforeseen either after Young Fenton has killed dad the frequently mentioned promise to buried in the Rose Garden is made. Young Adam’s angry assertion that “I promise to God I’ll bury you here,” show’s the switch flipped in him perhaps more so than when he followed through on dad’s destruction of a demon.
Another brilliant touch in Frailty is that as you follow Adam’s tale (whom we believe to be Fenton), an twists unravel, you realize you’re witness to his methodology. Every demon on his list presents a new challenge. FBI Agent Doyle presents quite a few. However, with Fenton being the demon prior it got the ball rolling and allowed him to concoct his tale, and Adam figures out a way to change the names in the story of his life well enough such that he can lay the appropriate traps to get Doyle’s attention, tell his story with just the right breaks such that he could lead the Agent to his future burial place.
What’s perhaps most impressive in Frailty is that it manages to be deft in a film that deals with a zealotry — or a metaphysical plot depending on your viewpoint. Fenton’s transition from suspected-demon to full-blown serial killer is mostly offscreen. We are witness to only the inception but not the road traveled thereafter. What we may interpret merely as Adam being an obedient, agreeable child is confirmed to be his truth as he saw (or believed he saw) the same things his father saw.
In the end it is Dad Meiks who spends the longest run inhabiting the role of the antagonist in the film. He may have a soft spot for Fenton inasmuch as he does not destroy him after he claims an angel told him he’s a demon, but he still dehumanizes him by locking him in the newly built cellar, starving him in the dark, and only gives him water through a knothole. With him occupying that position and Fenton being his victim its clear where we’ll identify for a majority of the tale. When all is said and done it would have come as no surprise if Fenton had killed himself. However, that was to be another twist, another lie Adam told. He did destroy Fenton and made it seem as if it was he who killed Agent Doyle, hence the ruse of the name when asking to see him.
If Frailty was but a spectacle of twists and upended expectations it would not have the staying power it has had since its release in 2002. Clever writing also can only do so much. It is the sensitive, humanizing, layered portrayals these characters are given by their actors that makes them relatable and identifiable. The performances ultimately makes it possible for the characters to occupy disparate roles throughout, and engender pity if not sympathy. For a villain is ever more effective when you can see where they’re coming from and understand the world from their vantage point, and Frailty makes it such that that happens. You will likely not agree with them, but you will understand them, and that makes the visceral reaction far more palpable.