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Film / Frailty

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"You can't make things like that up, son. Killing people is wrong, destroying demons is good. Don't worry, God will send you your own list when you're older."
Dad Meiks

Frailty is a 2001 movie directed by Bill Paxton and starring Paxton, Matthew McConaughey, and Powers Boothe.

Fenton Meiks (McConaughey) comes to an FBI agent (Boothe) with information about the notorious God's Hand Killer, who has been terrorizing the state of Texas. Through flashbacks, we learn about Fenton, his brother Adam, and his father (Paxton) who has a religious experience that plunges the entire family into turmoil. The father gathers his sons together one morning and tells them they are now soldiers in a heavenly war and are charged with destroying demons on earth. The revelation splits the family: Adam and his dad are on one side, believing they are destroying demons; meanwhile, Fenton believes they are murdering innocent people and is torn between loving his father and thinking he's completely off his rocker. Fenton makes a fateful decision and has come to the agent's office to relieve his guilt and confess his family's buried secrets...

...or has he?

As this movie relies on plenty of twists and turns, beware of spoilers. You Have Been Warned.

This film provides examples of:

  • Actually, I Am Him: "Fenton" reveals himself to be Adam while escorting Agent Doyle through the rose garden where he buried the bodies of the demons.
  • Asshole Victim: The last of Dad's demon targets. Within moments of meeting him, he's cursing out (presumably) his wife because she wanted to know who was at the door. In front of two children, no less.
  • Artistic License – Religion: According to Christian tradition, demons are pure spirit, without bodies, and which cannot be destroyed. Although, according to Christian teaching, it is possible for a demon to possess someone, the remedy for possession is an exorcism. Possessed people are just as much victims of demons as anyone else, and are not necessarily at fault for being possessed. Killing the possessed person would have absolutely no effect on the demon. It's also possible that the use of the term "demon" here is used as a synonym for an irredeemably wicked human. This seems to be the case with Fenton.
  • Cain and Abel: Played straight with Fenton and Adam, Fenton not being able to "See" the "Demons" and Adam being able to. Inverted as Adam ends up killing Fenton in the end.
  • Cassandra Truth: All that stuff about Demons? Turns out it was all true.
  • Chiaroscuro: Notably used in the scenes with Fenton and Doyle driving. For the most part, only one half of their faces are lit, by streetlights and the occasional passing car.
  • Christianity is Catholic: Averted. One of the deleted scenes reveals that the family is Baptist. Bill Paxton says that he cut the scene because he wanted them to be, in his words, "generically Christian."
  • The Complainer Is Always Wrong: Double subverted. When Adam and Fenton's father tells them about the visions he has seen, Adam accepts it unquestioningly while Fenton is deeply skeptical, and is presented as being in the right. But at the end, Fenton has become a deranged serial killer, and it turns out the visions Fenton and Adam's father had seen were real after all.
  • Decoy Backstory: Fenton Meiks confesses to an incredulous FBI agent about burying his brother Adam, the "God's Hand" Serial Killer the agent was hunting; most of the film is Fenton narrating his childhood as he watches his father become a religious killer and Adam as his acolyte. As Fenton takes the agent to his brother's grave in a rose garden, the agent realizes Adam promised to bury Fenton there, and says the story doesn't make sense. Fenton replies, "Yes it does... if the man standing in front of you is Adam Meiks."
  • The Ending Changes Everything: The Reveal that not only is Fenton really Adam, but that he really can see demons, puts the entire movie in a new light. The fact that he's there to kill the agent in charge only adds to this. The ending also reveals that Adam was, indeed, protected from video surveillance (the VHS tape recording him at the FBI office had bad-tracking lines over his face) and an FBI agent who personally met and interacted with him fails to recognize him!
  • Extra-Strength Masquerade: Dad states that he's invisible when he's working as God's Hand. In the ending, this turns out to be true. Security footage of Adam is corrupted so that his face can't be made out, and the one person who saw him face-to-face doesn't recognize him a short time later.
  • Fake-Out Twist: Fenton and his father turn out to be insane Serial Killers; Fenton's father professes to have the ability to sense evil in people and they believe they're purging sinners from the world by ritually murdering them in their barn. But then it's shown that Fenton isn't Fenton at all: he's Adam, the brother "Fenton" claimed was murdered by their father. And Adam and the dad actually can sense evil in people. Adam killed Fenton because he was a murderer, and he sees that the detective he's been talking to slew his own mother.
  • The Family That Slays Together: A single father tries to raise his two sons to assist him in his mission to wipe out "demons", which just look like normal people. However, two of the family members were legitimately called by God to destroy demons (seriously) while the other one becomes a straight-up Serial Killer, and his first victim is his own father (who was one of the ones called by God).
  • Flashback: Most of the movie, really.
  • Foreshadowing: The song the kids are singing at the beginning. It's a hymn/spiritual traditionally sung to children. Adam enjoys singing it, and Fenton reluctantly joins in.
  • Genre Shift: The earlier parts of the film strongly seem to suggest that Adam and Fenton's father really has just lost his mind, but the ending seems to imply that he really was commanded by angels to kill demons, thus shifting the genre from psychological thriller to supernatural thriller.
  • Guile Hero: Adam's entire scheme depends on revealing his family history to an FBI agent in a manner that obscures his real identity, in order to lure the demon inhabiting the agent to its doom.
  • Heel Realization: Subverted. At one point the father has Fenton build a dirt cellar and locks him in it so that Fenton can find his faith. Instead of realizing his dad was right, he realizes he is a demon. He buries an axe in his dad's chest and becomes a serial killer.
  • Holy Hitman: Averted. Despite saying that he's been chosen by God to destroy demons, Dad never brings up religion or the Bible. In a deleted scene, he admits that he had been losing his faith for a while before he started receiving visions, and was only going to church out of habit.
  • Insistent Terminology: A great deal of emphasis is placed on the difference between "destroying a demon" and "committing murder." Truth in Television, since the actual Biblical Commandment is more accurately translated as "Thou Shalt Not Commit Murder." When God commands that people (or, in this case, demons) be killed, there's usually a pretty good reason, which makes it not "murder."
  • Killed to Uphold the Masquerade: The sheriff. Notably he's the only non-demon to get the axe from the father in the entire movie.
  • Knight Templar: The dad. He even murders an innocent sheriff to prevent him from finding out about the plan (though he claims he had no choice), and comes within a hair of planting an axe in his son. He'd regret that he didn't do that later.
  • Only Sane Man: Fenton Meiks in the flashbacks. Or so we are led to believe.
  • Mission from God: The father claims to be on one. Turns out he was, and now Adam is too.
  • Meaningful Name: Adam Meiks is the real protagonist, as he's the one who has an actual biblical name as opposed to his demonic Serial Killer brother.
  • Mundane Made Awesome: Downplayed with the "weapons" given to them by God. They look like a pair of work gloves, a short length of pipe, and a woodcutting axe. But Dad explains that in their hands, they are essential for destroying demons.
  • Named Weapons: In a sense. The axe has "Otis" branded in the handle. Out of universe, Bill Paxton named it after a homeless man he met in Pasadena, to give it its own identity.
  • Natural Spotlight: How the axe and gloves are presented to Dad, with them being front and center upon a tree stump inside an old barn, lit by a hole in the ceiling.
  • No Name Given: Bill Paxton's character is never referred to by name. Even in the end credits, he's "Dad."
  • Punny Name: The Meiks shall inherit the Earth.
  • Rewatch Bonus: Like with The Sixth Sense, a lot of things in the movie take on a new light once you know the Twist Ending:
    • "Fenton", who is actually Adam, carefully avoids touching Agent Doyle until the end. When Doyle teaches out to shake his hand, Adam instead hands him the photo he took off his desk. When Doyle tries to put his hand on Adam's head to help him into the squad car, Adam jerks out of the way and says he can do it himself.
    • Why does Fenton have dark brown hair in the flashbacks, when Matthew McConaughey is blonde? Because that's really Adam, who's blonde in the flashbacks.
  • Room Full of Crazy: Fenton's bedroom.
  • Shout-Out: Defied. The script called for Fenton to want to sneak into Alien, but Bill Paxton changed the line to The Warriors instead, because he didn't want it to feel like a wink at the audience (Bill Paxton having been in Aliens).
  • Social Services Does Not Exist: Granted, he's an Unreliable Narrator, but when Fenton is imprisoned in the hole by his father, is it summer vacation? Surely someone would notice him missing school, at least.
    • Averted later in the film. After Fenton kills Dad, the two kids go to the authorities and say that Dad never came home one day. They spend the rest of their childhoods in foster care.
  • Serial-Killer Killer: If Adam can be believed, then he seems to do this, as the people he/his father kill do all seem to have done horrible things. But then again, Unreliable Narrator.
  • Soul-Saving Crusader: Adam and Fenton's father seems like a deranged Serial Killer at first who tortures and kills innocent people after hallucinating that he's been given a Mission from God to "destroy demons", but the ending reveals that it was all true: those people really were demons and their father was a Serial-Killer Killer.
  • Telepathy: The father claims to have the ability to see people's sins by touching them. Given the way Adam finds out about Wesley murdering his mother, and how, maybe he does. Also, when he shakes Agent Hull's hand and tells him he's a good man, it can be assumed that he saw that Hull hadn't committed any terrible crimes.
  • Tomato in the Mirror: When Fenton realizes that he is a demon.
  • Trouble Entendre: "I promise to God I'll bury you here."
  • The Only One Allowed to Defeat You: Played With. Fenton, after revealing himself to actually be Adam, stated that while he knew his brother was a serial killer, he had to wait until Fenton's name came up on his list. To kill him before that would be murder.
  • The Reveal: It turns out that the visions that Dad and Adam Meiks saw were in fact true and the people who he abducted and killed with his ax were in fact demons who had committed horrific crimes.
    • Fenton is really Adam.
    • Agent Doyle is really a demon on the Angel's list to be destroyed and that Doyle had killed his own mother.
    • Also, Fenton turns out to be a demon, had become a serial killer when he was older, and Adam had killed him. Succeeding where their father had failed.
  • Twist Ending: The man who calls himself Fenton Meiks is really ADAM Meiks, and he's only telling the story in order to get Agent Doyle out of the office to be destroyed. Yep, the father was really called by God to destroy demons: Agent Doyle is one, and so is Fenton, who ended up becoming a serial killer. Adam has been carrying on his father's work.
  • Unreliable Narrator: "Fenton" Meiks' clearly told some lies in his story to Agent Doyle, considering that he later reveals himself to be Adam Meiks and to have buried more victims than his brother the God's Hand Killer had claimed.
  • Vertigo Effect: When the FBI agent meets the Sheriff, and doesn't recognize him as the guy from the night before who was the last person to see Wesley alive.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The plot is inspired by Joseph Kallinger, a serial killer who abducted and killed several families between 1974 and 1975, and forced his 12-year-old son Michael to assist him.
  • Wham Line: Agent Doyle questioning why Fenton would want Adam to bury him in the same place where all the other demons are buried leads to the first huge reveal of many:
    Doyle: That don't make any sense.
    Fenton: It does. (Beat) If the man standing in front of you is Adam Meiks.
  • Wham Shot: In the final scene of the movie, Agent Hull meets with the Sheriff to let him know of Fenton's death. The Sheriff steps into the police department entrance from the backroom, and it's Adam Mieks.

"God's will is done."