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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.”
Director: Bill Paxton
Writers: Brent Hanley
Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Bill Paxton, Powers Boothe, Matt O’Leary, Jeremy Sumpter
Release Date: April 12, 2002
Run time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
This review contains spoilers. This movie is a suspense thriller with some twists and surprises. Reading the review will ruin those surprises, so proceed with cation.
Fenton Meiks visits FBI Agent Wesley Doyle claiming that his brother Adam is the culprit in the “God’s Hand” serial killings. Fenton says Adam has committed suicide, prompting Fenton to fulfill a promise to bury his brother in a public rose garden in their hometown of Thurman. He begins to tell Doyle about the boys’ childhood and suggests that the bodies of the God’s Hand victims are buried in the rose garden.
While children in the summer of 1979, their father told them that he had been visited by an angel and tasked by God with “destroying” demons disguised as human beings; a mission which must be kept secret. Their father “is led” to 3 tools: an axe, gloves and a pipe; he receives a list of names from the angel as well. He incapacitates a woman with the pipe and brings her home to kill with the axe. When he lays his hand on her, he claims to see a vision of her evil, then kills her and makes the boys help him bury her body in the rose garden. Fenton is horrified and believes his father insane; Adam claims he sees the visions and supports their father.
After telling Doyle about the first killing, Doyle drives them to Thurman. On the way, Doyle tells Fenton that his mother had been murdered by someone that was never caught. Fenton then tells Doyle how they took the second victim in broad daylight, with his father insisting God would blind any witnesses. One night, Fenton’s father tells him that after praying for the angel to visit Fenton (for his lack of faith) the angel instead visited him, and told him something bad about Fenton. He makes Fenton dig a hole and Fenton abandons all faith in God. Their father makes the hole into a cellar and moves the shed on top of it.
During the third episode, Fenton escapes from the cellar and runs to the sheriff who takes him back home. To quiet Fenton’s apparent ramblings, the sheriff looks in the cellar, but finds it empty. As he leaves, their father kills him and is angry with Fenton for making him murder an innocent man. After burying the body, Fenton’s father tells him the angel told him Fenton was a demon. To save him and encourage him to have faith, he locks Fenton in the cellar for over a week. Fenton claims to have been enlightened and his father releases him to carry out the next killing.
Fenton cooperates with his father to take the next victim but alerts him just before his father hits the man with the pipe, nearly blowing the scheme. In the cellar, Fenton readies to kill the man with the axe, but kills his father instead. As he tries to release the man, Adam takes up the axe and kills the man after all. While burying the two men, Fenton makes Adam promise to bury him in the garden if Adam ever “destroys” him.
Doyle is puzzled by his phrasing, since he said Adam killed himself. “Fenton” then reveals to Doyle that he is Adam. It is also revealed that Adam killed Fenton, who had grown up to become the actual God’s Hand killer (a series of unrelated murders not committed by Adam “destroying” demons; Doyle is horrified to see the number of graves in the rose garden). Flashbacks reveal that Adam did in fact share his father’s visions of the crimes of those they abducted, who were indeed demons. When Adam touches Doyle, a vision reveals that Doyle murdered his mother – he was on Adam’s list. Adam kills him in a prepared grave as part of a long scheme to get him there.
After Doyle’s disappearance, an Agent Griffin Hull, who has previously met with Adam, can’t seem to remember his face. The security tapes are also inexplicably obscured by static whenever Adam is in view. The FBI raid Fenton’s house, finding the God’s Hand list and Doyle’s badge, which corroborate his being the killer. Agent Hull visits Adam Meiks, a nearby county sheriff, to tell him Fenton was the killer. Upon shaking his hand, Adam declares the agent a good man.
If you enjoy smart, well-acted, suspense thrillers, then I recommend you check out Frailty. Most of the film was a painful depiction of untethered religious zealotry, the dangers of social isolation with respect to mental health awareness, and about how two sons cope in different ways with profound child abuse. Rather than having a straight-forward mean and angry father, the two boys have their abuse inflicted upon them by someone who genuinely seems to love them (Bill Paxton plays a loving dad character really well.) This premise standing on its own made for a compelling story. Then the story gets turned on its head. Suddenly the audience is asked to reflect on and reframe the events they’ve seen and consider them from an opposite perspective, namely one where the father’s visions and mission from God were true. After the perspective adjustment, the father goes from an abuser to being a spiritual leader doing his best under tough circumstances. The elder son Fenton goes from sympathetic protagonist to a demonic serial killer. The younger son Adam goes from being perceived as a serial killer to instead being a divine avenger.
We do not end up with easy answers. The movie ends with the younger son Adam, now an adult, free to continuing the work of destroying demons. The audience is left in an uncomfortable position of not knowing how to feel about what they’ve just witnessed. If we started on Fenton’s side, changing sides is not so easy even after learning more information.
The movie asks its audience to reflect on a lot of moral philosophical dilemmas and it does not shy away from how God influences our perception of those dilemmas.
If you’re a kid, and your dad forces you to participate in murder, are you morally culpable for your actions? If he genuinely believes that God has told him to commit these acts, to what degree is he culpable? Does it matter if God really did talk to him? Does it matter whether the evidence suggests that the people targeted really do seem evil? At what point do you, as the son, become morally complicit in these killings? Does it make a difference if the abuse you suffered is why you do not believe that the people you are killing are human? Does it make a difference if they genuinely are not human?
My guess is that people who watch this will be divided as to the plot twist, namely that the visions really were true and that God was aiding this slaughter of demons. I was a fan of the twist. The story lays the groundwork for it but does so subtly enough to successfully disguise it. When we do get to Adam’s big reveal, and our perspective is changed, we are pushed to think about morality and its points of origin. We do need to consider what it might mean to our moral choices if God is real. The movie highlights that side of its moral philosophy discussion by asking the audience to believe that Fenton’s father is telling the truth. God’s place in the story makes a difference in how we view morality. In that sense, the story is making an assertion about God’s relevance to humanity more generally.
The acting performances in the film are fantastic. Bill Paxton – who was also the director of the movie – plays the loving father so well that it is jarring when he starts axing demons and making his kids participate. Powers Boothe was great as an FBI agent with a dark secret. Matthew McConaughey was outstanding as Fenton/Adam Meiks. He told Fenton’s story in a compelling way, while leaving plenty of hints that he possessed a secret of his own. By the time he and Agent Doyle get to the Rose Garden, it’s obvious that something is about to happen. We just do not see what until it hits us. Matt O’Leary’s performance as Young Fenton was also fantastic. He completely sold me on his feelings of helpless despair, in the face of his father seeming to go insane.
Despite the subject matter, the movie does not lean heavily on its depictions of violence. For the most part, the camera cuts away when someone is about to be struck or axed. There is very little blood depicted on screen. I felt like this was an interesting choice from Paxton, and calculated to keep the audience focused on the moral choices of the characters, rather than the actions they were carrying out. That said, I would definitely not recommend this film to anyone young or squeamish.
On the whole, I do recommend the movie. If anyone else has seen it, too, I’d love to hear your thoughts.