Frailty (2002)

D: Bill Paxton
S: Bill Paxton, Matthew McConaughey

Nice little horror film, atmospherically directed by actor Bill Paxton (Twister), who also stars. Featuring a largely authentic Texan cast, the film tells the story of the rampage of the 'God's Hand Killer', a serial murderer whose crimes have perplexed the FBI for many years. When agent Powers Boothe is confronted late one night by crisp-eyed Matthew McConaughey (Reign of Fire), who claims to know the identity of the killer, a flashback narration begins in which a father (Paxton) and his children (Matt O'Leary and Luke Askew) find themselves on a disturbing mission from God. Paxton is convinced that he has been visited by an angel who has pledged to him the task of destroying demons from the earth. The catch is that the demons look just like everyone else. Doubtful O'Leary is reluctant to become an accomplice to the series of murders which follows, and the audience is never entirely sure who to believe.

Frailty takes on the difficult task of playing in the realm of moral ambiguity. Its focus in on a character who is convinced of his righteousness, yet whose actions are abhorred even by his own elder son. Not only is the audience uncertain as to the veracity of events because of the fact that Paxton never shows them anything definitive, but because the moral universe of the film seems so inverted. While there is a certain strain of Baptist fire-and-brimstone preaching familiar enough to work as a generic trigger, Paxton has been careful to omit any specific reference to particular religious affiliation and casts his father figure not so much as a wild-eyed zealot and more as a patient and considerate man trying to do what he believes to be right. The framework through which this sense of right is established is is in question though, and this is examined both on a social and personal level.

The film is terrifying because of its intense closeness, greatly aided by veteran cinematographer Bill Butler's photography. The atmosphere of home and family is as important to the film as a climate of dread and fear, almost to the exclusion of many elements of the outside world which might have given the characters some perspective and guidance. The sense of immersion in a point of view is palpable, and the conflict at the film's centre rests upon young O'Leary's attempt to reject it. Neatly combining this drama of patrimonial succession with the deeper and broader moral and religious context, the film then successfully draws in the best elements of domestic drama, suspense thriller, and straight horror. It is a heady cocktail of elements over which Paxton has notable control for a debuting director.

The performances are also very good. O'Leary makes a believable foil for his adult co-star, and Paxton seems unbowed by the dual challenge of holding the film as director and actor. Boothe and McConaughey have supporting roles, but both are vital. The whole tone of the film rests upon the slow development of their relationship in tandem with the flashbacks. The initial incredulousness with which Boothe treats the latter's story allows the audience to ease into the world of the film, and as the story becomes darker and begins to threaten its own credibility, Paxton is able to cut back to the interview to keep it rooted. Of course it becomes evident soon enough that the interview scenes are far from unrelated to the main plot, and the film eventually comes full circle in a predictable but narratively pleasing way.

Frailty is a genuinely chilling movie, creepy without being campy, horrifying without resorting to much in the way of explicit gore. There are some very nasty moments in it, but not because of what is seen. The scenes where Paxton urges his children to participate in the destroying of demons are deeply frightening, calling to mind moments from Night of the Living Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre but without the fantasy of the former and the humour of the latter. Though not a shockfest for the Scream generation, it is the best American horror film in years, a serious appreciation of schisms in the American moral conscience which brings visual weight to a solid script (by Brent Hanley) and keeps its audience riveted at almost every turn.

Check this one out.

Note: The Region 1 DVD comes with an interesting commentary by Paxton, some worthwhile deleted scenes, a making of and a nice "Anatomy of a Scene" clip from the Sundance Channel which shows Bill Butler in action.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2003.