Frailty is a real love-it-or-hate-it kind of movie. Directed by Bill Paxton, an actor best known for his roles in James Cameron films like Aliens and Titanic, it’s a dark, moody thriller about a single dad in rural Texas who tells his two sons that God has given them a secret mission — to destroy “demons.” The problem is, these so-called demons seem to be just ordinary human beings.
Reviews from secular film critics have been all over the map. Roger Ebert gave the film his highest rating, a full four stars out of four, while The Vancouver Sun’s Marke Andrews gave it his lowest, a mere one star out of five. But the response from Christian activists has been more predictable.
Ed Vitagliano, director of research for the American Family Association, told Agape Press that Frailty not only casts Christians in a negative light, but also proves that Hollywood is out to get us.
He is quoted as saying: “We, in fact, find this film — at least the description of it — to be a further indication of the fact that Hollywood, for the most part, has a vendetta against Christians, especially Christians who hold to the absolute truths of scripture.”
There are, of course, several problems with this statement. First, if Vitagliano is responding only to a “description” of the film, then it sounds as though he is passing judgment on the film before he has even seen it.
If that is the case, then he is speaking out of ignorance, and it is somewhat ironic when he complains later on that Hollywood always portrays Christians as “loud-mouthed” and “self-righteous.”
Second, the idea that Hollywood is going out of its way to trash Christianity these days is simply false. Looking just at the 15 biggest hits of the year so far, I can think of none that are all that critical of the faith, and at least four — John Q, We Were Soldiers, The Count of Monte Cristo and A Walk to Remember — that portray strong Christian characters in a positive light.
In addition, Changing Lanes, an earnest morality play about revenge and forgiveness, sets its ethical debates against a clearly religious backdrop, and The Rookie, a warm, G-rated drama about a high school science teacher who plays major-league baseball, is based on the life of a Christian.
Third, the film itself does not support such a simplistic interpretation (and to go into this a little deeper, it will be necessary to give away some of the story’s secrets). Frailty is not just another movie which suggests that people with quasi-fundamentalist beliefs are violent or insane; it also flirts with the possibility that the father in question really does have supernatural guidance after all.
The father (played by Paxton) tells his sons that he can see the evil of his allegedly demonic victims when he touches them. One of his sons, the eager-to-please Adam (Jeremy Sumpter), claims he can see these visions too, but the other, Fenton (Matthew O’Leary), cannot.
The film is told mostly from Fenton’s skeptical and increasingly resentful point of view, but when it does give us a glimpse of what Adam and his father see, we realize they are looking at the evil deeds that have been committed by their victims. However, it also seems that their victims are ordinary people after all, albeit people who have sinned.
So, if we wanted to, we could argue that this film affirms the Christian belief that the unrighteous will be punished, and that people must obey God no matter what he tells them to do. The Old Testament is full of stories in which God tells people to commit acts of violence, from Abraham sacrificing his son Isaac to the Israelite conquest of Canaan, and if the film’s violence disturbs us, then perhaps, rather than condemn the film out of hand, we can use it as an opportunity to wrestle with the role of violence in our own faith tradition.
But just as it would be wrong to write the film off altogether, it would also be wrong to excuse some of the more subtle attitudes embodied by the film or its main characters.
First, assuming the visions are correct, it seems the ‘demons’ destroyed by the father and his son are not really fallen angels, but humans who have committed great sins. Rather than see them as people who need redemption, the father dehumanizes and literally ‘demonizes’ his victims. He divides the world into ‘good’ people and ‘bad’ people, and he fails to recognize that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
Second, it seems the great sin committed by most or all of the victims is murder — but are there no other sins for which people could be judged, like adultery or fraud or everyday deceit? Granted, violence is more lurid and easier to show in film, but sin is often quite boring, and it often doesn’t require us to do anything at all. Is the average moviegoer supposed to think she’s a ‘good’ person just because she’s never killed anybody?
Third, and most important, where is the faith community in all of this? Adam and Fenton watch Davey and Goliath on TV and sing Sunday school songs as they go for walks, but we never see them go to church or consult with their friends.
Perhaps, like the tragic real-life case of Andrea Yates, the Texas woman who heard voices and drowned her children so they could go straight to heaven, the film can serve as a reminder that faith is not something we do on our own, but something that requires us to be accountable to our fellow believers.
These are some of the questions that Christians can explore when a film rubs us the wrong way. Learning to think critically about films, and about art in general, is a necessary skill in this media-saturated age, and no one is helped when self-appointed culture warriors condemn obscure movies they’ve apparently never seen.