Directed by Bill Paxton
Starring Bill Paxton, Matthew McConaughey, Powers Booth, Matthew O’Leary, Jeremy Sumpter
As bold a directorial debut as I’ve seen in quite a while — though he’s had plenty of time to study while acting under some true masters over the past decades — Bill Paxton’s Frailty is both genuinely chilling and surprisingly well-crafted. If it goes on a bit too long at the end, and tries to wrap up loose ends that are better left loose, well then I for one forgive it. Because the previous hour and twenty-seven minutes had me glued to the screen.
Having not seen the film in the theatre, but having heard or read plenty of basic reviews of it, I was led to believe that Frailty was to be much more of a “horror” film than it actually was. Don’t get me wrong, it was truly frightening and earned its pay-offs, but it wasn’t really a horror movie as much as it was a creepy, atmospheric one. Though it might clunk here and there, or fall victim to a few weak lines in the script, it is ultimately successful and entertaining on its own terms, always making you think — even after the credits begin to roll. (Even after you’ve started writing a review about it, for that matter).
Frailty tells the story of an average American family in the late 1950s and what happens to that family when the head of it suddenly claims to have heard God’s voice. Dad (who is never actually given any other name in the film) is briefly set up as a fairly normal father, doing the best he can to raise two sons on his own. His wife died while giving birth to the youngest of the two, Adam, and it has been just the three of them ever since. They laugh together, they play together, they eat dinner together every night.
Then one night, Dad walks in, wakes the boys up, and tells them God has spoken to him. God has told Dad that he and his boys are to be His warriors on earth. Their mission: to destroy demons disguised as people.
It’s a very interesting premise, to be sure, and Paxton (both as actor and director) mines it for all that it’s worth. Honestly, what would you do if your dad, an essentially normal and sane man in all the time you have known him, just walks into your room one night and calmly explains that God has ordered him (and you!) to kill people. His two sons go decidedly different ways — Adam, the younger one, eats the idea up wholeheartedly, wanting to destroy demons as if it were a video game of sorts, while Fenton (the eldest son at 13) doesn’t believe a single word of it. He thinks his father has “gone crazy in the head.” Both are logical conclusions, given the circumstances, but as an audience, I’m guessing most people go with Fenton’s line of arguing.
Of course, it helps that it is Fenton as a grown man (Matthew McConaughey) who is narrating the story for us, in the form of a confession of sorts to an FBI agent (in a small but effective performance by Powers Booth). In the present day, the feds are trying to track down and stop the “God’s Hand Killer” who has been wreaking havoc and creating panic around the country. Fenton has come to the FBI to confess — because he claims the feared God’s Hand Killer is actually his own brother, Adam. Or was, anyway. Adam had committed suicide that very night.
Frailty is at its best when it is building its haunting mood and surrounding you in it. Again, this is not a “jump out of your seat”-type thriller, but the overall film is quite creepy and disturbing. As we watch in disbelief, Dad finds three weapons that God has “sent him” to dispatch with the demons (an ax, a big tube or something of the sort — never really explained, except that it’s good for knocking people out with — and a pair of gloves). Soon, God has sent him a list of the first seven demons that the family needs to kill. Dad and Adam are quite excited about the whole thing, while Fenton sulks and tries to be as uninvolved as possible. For the former pair, they are destroying demons, to the latter boy, they are murdering innocent people.
The film does a good job of not revealing all of its cards until they need to be played, and the acting is strong across the board — especially the two young children, in what no doubt were challenging roles (as the boy who plays Adam explains in the DVD’s “making-of” special, “I had no idea what any of it was about. I was totally confused”). Its strengths lie in its ability to create a mood and sustain it over the course of the film — much credit to Paxton (both as actor and director) for pulling this off. If he veered to far one way, he’d have made a campy “B” movie; if he veered another, he’d have looked like he was trying to be artsy and, thus, pretentious. But with Frailty, he stays the course, taking what could have been just a decent film and turning it into something altogether better.
The DVD is moderately packed with extras, including a couple of worthwhile featurettes on the making of the film, no less than three audio commentaries (with Paxton’s easily being the most entertaining) and storyboard comparisons. The transfer is near pristine and needs to be seen in the widescreen format to be fully appreciated.