A great debut

“That’s it, man! Game over!”

“That’s it, man! Game over!”

Rated 4.0

First-time director Bill Paxton uses religious fanaticism to often scare the hell out of you in Frailty, a gothic horror film with more twists than it needs but enough scares to make it see-worthy.

When Paxton’s movie is working, it is an eerie and often chilling piece of filmmaking that shows the actor-turned-director to be a gifted purveyor of atmosphere and horror. When he steers his film into more formulaic territory toward film’s end, it’s not a fatal mistake, but it does seem out of tune with the rest of his often brilliant film.

A grouchy FBI agent (Powers Boothe) encounters a strange man in his office named Fenton Meiks (Matthew McConaughey), who claims to know the identity of the God’s Hand serial killer. The agent doubts the man at first, so Fenton tells a story that leads into a flashback of his childhood.

Fenton (played in the flashbacks by Matt O’Leary) had a younger brother, Adam (Jeremy Sumpter), and an attentive father (Paxton). They lived a quiet, ordinary life in Texas after the death of his mother, cleaning the dishes after supper and trying to tackle math homework on the weekends. The boys loved their father, a hard-working mechanic who seemed to be dealing just fine with the stresses of losing a wife and raising children on his own. Then, he had a very bad dream.

As McConaughey’s narration reveals, a normal childhood vanishes forever when Dad barges into their room one night and declares that God sent an angel with a special message: The world is full of demons in human form, and it is now the family’s mission to kill them all with special weapons sent by the Lord. The younger brother buys into everything his dad is saying, while Fenton has his doubts, thinking that perhaps the nighttime visit from his deranged father was a dream.

The visit was very real and Dad engages in a series of axe murders, with his boys watching every swing of his weapon. Frailty is shocking in its depictions of murder, not due to gore (there is hardly a spot of blood in the film) but in seeing the boys’ reaction shots to their father’s acts. This is a movie where you want to jump into the screen and usher these poor kids out of their dad’s work shed.

The film has echoes of Kubrick’s The Shining. The murders are done with an axe, while a young boy witnesses his father, his hero, descending into insanity.

Paxton, as actor and director, does a solid job of summoning the worst fears of adolescent males: that their father, the man they look to for security and guidance, is a monster. In addition, they can’t look to God either, for God is the one allegedly guiding their father on a murderous rampage. The film works as both a study of adolescent fears and a meditation on the misuse and abuse of religion (a timely message indeed).

It’s hard to believe that the guy who played the screaming Marine in Aliens ("Game over!") could be such a capable filmmaker. The story gets a little out of control toward the end, when Frailty tries to be a mystery as well as a horror show. The ending is not bad, and as formula horror endings go, it’s competently executed. It just feels tacked on to the wrong movie.

While the last 10 minutes keep Frailty from being a classic, they don’t prevent it from being a fantastic directing debut from Paxton. The guy knows his way around a movie.