Jewish World Review April 25, 2002 / 13 Iyar, 5762

Michael Medved

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How a frustrated, overlooked Hollywood actor gets instant respectability | Can religion bashing provide a frustrated, often overlooked Hollywood actor with a convenient shortcut to respectability?

By making his directorial debut with an unsettling new movie about a family of crazed, Christian serial killers, the veteran performer Bill Paxton unmistakably intends to test that strategy. After solid but unspectacular appearances in such movies as Twister, Apollo 13, Titanic and U-571, Paxton's audacious project, Frailty, seems to have succeeded in earning him the fresh attention and praise he candidly craved.

Frailty uses a grisly confession by a mysterious stranger played by Matthew McConaughey, and a complex series of interlocking flashbacks, to unravel the mystery of the fictional "G-d's Hand" murders. McConaughey explains to a skeptical FBI agent (Powers Boothe) that his widower father (nicely played by Paxton himself) fell victim to religious delusions that led him to kidnap, slaughter and mutilate a series of unsuspecting strangers, savagely wielding a long-handled ax. Worst of all, he forces his two young boys, ages 12 and 9, to take part in the killings in order to conform to G-d's plan.

When the older boy wavers in this bloody business, the father urges him to pray and confines him to a newly constructed dungeon until he, too, sees the face of G-d.


Complicated plot twists reveal the mass-murdering dad as something more than a one-dimensional psycho, but the ugly association of fervent faith with horrific brutality provides the movie with its principal focus. The media notes distributed to critics emphasize that connection, describing the picture as "a powerful, provocative and frightening film about faith, lost innocence and the sometimes indistinguishable nature of good and evil in the contemporary world."

Those notes quote first-time screenwriter Brent Hanley proudly proclaiming: "Frailty even references the Bible, offering a modern take on 'The Story of Isaac' and elements of the Old Testament."

Biblical scholars might find it difficult to identify Isaac - or Abraham, for that matter - with a murdering maniac with an ax, so the movie's producer, David Kirschner, (perhaps best known for four movies about a killer doll named Chucky) attempted to invoke yet another Torah figure. "Today, if someone says 'G-d spoke to me,' we think that they're crazy," he declared. "Yet, the Old Testament is based on G-d's conversations with Moses. We want to believe that it happened then, but we can't accept that it might happen today."

Such outrageous parallels between the gruesome killings in the movie and the admired heroes of the Bible reflect a conscious strategy for positioning this film as a "challenge" to religious faith. The filmmakers don't cringe at the possibility that their project may give offense to traditional believers; they seem, rather, to revel in the certainty that it will.

Prominent critics have gotten the point, including Moira Macdonald of The Seattle Times, who described Frailty as "a cautionary tale against religious fanaticism."

In The New York Times, Stephen Holden observed: "Frailty may be only a genre film, but it forcefully reminds us of the degree to which all of us are our parents' ideological captives when we're children. ... And in an age when intolerant fundamentalist faith is once again ascendant, it is a theme worth dwelling on."

Regardless of the worthiness of this theme, Frailty opened in only ninth place at the domestic box office during its first weekend - a respectable but hardly impressive showing for a movie that played on fewer than 1,500 screens. In any event, blockbuster status never represented a realistic goal for this oddball offering. In a profoundly revealing interview with The New York Times two weeks before his movie's release, the director candidly conceded that his main motivation in directing Frailty concerned earning new respect from his peers.

"Yeah, it's tough stuff," Paxton boasted about the substance of the project, praising the script as "disturbing."


This dark edge especially appealed to an actor noted for his bland, nice-guy image, who still felt wounded by his inability to attend top film schools because of his low SAT scores. Paxton could recall 25 years later that "I was so hurt by that, really hurt by that."

Meanwhile, he noticed that his friend Billy Bob Thornton (his co-star on the captivating A Simple Plan) enjoyed a career breakthrough after writing and directing Sling Blade in 1996.

"I watched how Billy, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck - all these guys - were suddenly lauded because they made films," Paxton said in the Times interview. "Because I don't think you get respect as an actor in this town - unless you're Tom Cruise or Tom Hanks. But you get respect as a filmmaker."


You may get special respect, in fact, with movies that invoke religious themes or imagery to provide greater depth and resonance to stories about brutal killers. Those films - never based on any real-life cases; religious elements rarely turn up in serial murders - range from the Martin Scorsese remake of Cape Fear (with Robert De Niro as a bloodthirsty, backwoods Pentecostal with a cross tattooed on his back), to Seven, Copycat, Just Cause, Stigmata and now Frailty. Few of these films achieve conspicuous commercial success, but Hollywood keeps churning them out anyway because religious references lend an air of seriousness to even the most lurid, formulaic material.

Faith is one of the few subjects that seems significant to everyone, whether or not you're a believer, allowing an insecure first-time director to pose as a daring social critic, and a convoluted gothic thriller to pass itself off as "a cautionary tale about religious fanaticism."

As a matter of fact, the prevailing Hollywood bias against intense religiosity facilitates precisely the surprisingly positive reaction to a project of this sort that may strike Bill Paxton and his colleagues as an eagerly awaited answer to their prayers.

JWR contributor, author and film critic Michael Medved, a "survivor" of his own family with three kids, hosts a daily three-hour radio talk show broadcast in more than 120 cities throughout the United States. His latest book, written together with his wife, is Saving Childhood : Protecting Our Children from the National Assault on Innocence . You may contact him by clicking here.

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