Softly and with a big ax
Bill Paxton’s gothic horror tale Frailty has the makings of a cult masterpiece
When you hear that Bill Paxton’s Frailty is about a man who believes God has commanded him to destroy demons disguised as human beings, you may guess that it’s a gory and/or sensationalistic piece of work. When you hear that the man gets his two young sons involved in his lethal missions, your suspicions may only intensify.
But Paxton’s directorial debut, drawn from a nifty script by Brent Hanley, is a surprisingly deft and subtle mixture of character study and mystery tale. It is yet another movie about serial murders, but its bloodiest violence is left almost entirely to the imagination. And what Paxton and Hanley focus on instead are the moral and spiritual dilemmas in the complex, unpredictable three-way relationship the boys have with their widowed father.
Paxton himself plays the father, a character whose abiding gentleness and devotion to his sons makes his fanaticism all the more disturbing. But the story itself is structured around the attempt of one of the now-grown sons (Matthew McConaughey) to tell an FBI agent (Powers Boothe) what he knows about the heretofore unsolved “God’s Hand” murders. Consequently, much of the film is built on extended flashbacks, with emphasis on the youthful point-of-view of the older and more skeptical of the sons.
Frailty has been described by its director as “a good creepy Gothic story, and a family tragedy,” all of which is apt. But it’s also an unusually intelligent variation on the horror film and a shrewdly sensitive take on the evangelical pursuit of justice. Best of all, it is a mystery film in a double sense—a murder mystery in which guilty secrets and surprise character twists abound, and an almost Dostoevskian religious mystery in which the possibilities of the supernatural reassert themselves in surprising ways.
McConaughey is excellent as the gloomily conflicted would-be confessor, and young Matthew O’Leary carries astonishing dramatic heft as the 12-year-old version of the older brother Fenton. Paxton’s genial, earthy presence serves the father role quite nicely, and the sleek menace in Boothe’s FBI agent becomes increasingly significant as the story moves along. Veteran Luke Askew is good as the small-town sheriff to whom young Fenton turns for help, with unexpected consequences.
Paxton and cinematographer Bill Butler have given the film the look of a low-budget film from the late ‘50s or early ‘60s, rather as if it were courting “underground” cult status conferred upon the more inspired and offbeat B-movies of that era (the tendency to push the violence off screen only underlines this aspect of the film). Much of the film is barebones in terms of production values, but in a dozen or so shots scattered over the course of the film, Frailty looks like it has the makings of a masterpiece of conflicted emotions and solipsistic righteousness.