When I first heard about Frailty, I was a little taken back. Bill Paxton making his directorial debut with a horror movie? The man's only real credentials in the genre, aside from being personal friends with Sissy "Carrie" Spacek, is the honor of being the one person killed by both the Aliens and a Predator. So I first rented this as a last resort (you know, when everything else you wanted to see is already checked out), fearing that four hard-earned dollars might be wasted. To my surprise, Frailty was much better than I had any reason to expect it to be.
Matthew McConaughey stars as Fenton Meiks, who walks into the FBI headquarters in Texas one rainy night to give Special Agent Wesley Doyle (Powers Boothe) some key information about an ongoing investigation. It seems there's a killer by the name of "God's Hand" on the loose, and Fenton claims that his younger brother Adam is the culprit behind the murders. Though skeptical, Doyle agrees to follow Fenton to the site where all of the victims are buried. Along the way, the elder Meiks child recounts how the whole ordeal was started, flashing back to to 1979 when his father (Bill Paxton, whose character is simply called Dad) believed he had been visited by an angel and given instructions to "destroy" demons disguised as humans. It seems Adam has been keeping the family legacy alive.
As far as recent horror films go, this is one of the most well-written movies I have seen in a good while. I'm usually not the biggest fan of stories told in flashbacks, since having a person tell the story tends to give away at least one vital piece of information that allows you to guess how the event will turn out. But screenwriter Brent Hanley made a wise decision to make the majority of the film occur in flashback scenes. Since Fenton is telling the story from his perspective, a lot of the movies deals with how Dad's new "calling" affects his two sons, whom he is raising alone. The older son doesn't believe for one second the people Dad is dispatching are demons, but he hesitates to tell anyone about the murders because of his love for his pop. This helps us empathize with Fenton's predicament, since the audience has dual allegiances: we want him to be loyal to his father, but we can't condone what the old man is doing. We also see how it affects his relationship with Adam, whom he is quite protective of. When Adam gives his blind allegiance to Dad's mission, Fenton does all he can to tell him it's wrong with no avail. In the end, Fenton ends up staying because he wants to protect his younger brother. All of these interactions go a lot deeper than standard horror fare, giving the film some heightened family drama. A movie like this could have too easily focused on the "crazy Dad" element of the story, whereas here it is mainly a means for the story to move along, with most of the plot dealing with the two sons.
Paxton's directing job is good, if workman-like. He doesn't go for crazy camera angles or quick cuts. Like the script, he uses the camera to let us observe the interaction between the three main characters. I would credit this not to a lack of talent, merely a lack of experience, and I think he made a wise choice. I would rather he keep with the story and give us shots and angles that are standard fare than try to do something slick or fancy and end up distracting us from what's going on. That said, he does do some things very well. First, he uses cinematographer Bill Butler's visuals to their maximum effect. Butler uses a lot of dark hues and great lighting techniques to allow Paxton to give small-town Texas an amazing gothic atmosphere. Also, Paxton chooses to steer away from the gore. Instead of zooming in on ax wounds, we mainly get shots of how other characters react to the killings they are witnessing. Gore-hounds may dismiss it, but I think it was an effective move. Not only do we see how much this truly affects the young boys, but we are also left to imagine the evisceration for ourselves. Many times (for me at least), that's much worse than what they can throw on screen.
All of this would be for naught if the actors didn't bring their "A-game" to the table. Fortunately, all give very good performances. Paxton pulls off Dad Meiks brilliantly. The audience is constantly left to wonder if he really has been chosen as God's avenging arm or if he's just bat-s**t insane. The lines are blurred because Paxton lets us see how much his character really cares for his sons, but still believes his justifications for his own crimes. The man also creeps the hell out of you. When Fenton finally relents and picks up the ax, his "I'm proud of you" speech wouldn't sound out of place at a Little League game, and it really gets under your skin. McConaughey drops the stoner cool aesthetic to deliver a haunted, shell shocked adult Fenton. Most of his screen time is dedicated to dialogue, and the lost look in his eyes and monotone delivery really drive home the the fact his character has been witness to unspeakable horrors. Powers Boothe is limited in his screen time, but he pulls off the dedicated, "get my man at any cost" agent very well. But the movie is really carried by Matt O'Leary and Jeremy Sumpter, who play young Fenton and Adam, respectively. O'Leary works wonders in showing the desperation, loss and confusion of a boy whose innocence has been shattered by the deeds of his father. Sumpter proves equally adept at displaying Adam's blind devotion to his old man. His insistence on joining his father's quest was one of the things that really got to me. It's not often you hear a nine-year-old complain that he isn't involved enough in ax murders.
If there is one thing that bugs me about this movie, it's the ending. I like how everything turned out, but the "big twist" is really thrown at the audience. It's a curveball that comes from so far out of the blue that it's really disorienting. It felt like the filmmakers couldn't think of a way to include it naturally. Instead, the ending seems tacked on and the audience is expected to take it, no questions asked. It's really difficult to talk about without giving too much away, but any first-time viewer should be warned that they may walk away scratching his head since so much has to be taken at face value. That said, it does make you question almost every frame that preceded it, and a second viewing makes for an interesting game of "spot the clues."
Paxton did really well with his directorial debut, and I wholeheartedly recommend it. By focusing on three main characters, he has created a taut thriller that doesn't rely on various red herrings to keep you interested. Though there are a few places where we can tell this is his first film, Paxton creates a thriller that digs deeper than many horror films that came before or after it. Rent it, or better yet, add it to your collection. Frailty is worth the money.