Bill Paxton often found himself attached to stories brimming with menace.
During his prolific film career, Bill Paxton often found himself attached to stories brimming with menace. Whether it was through science-fiction threats arising from aliens, predators and terminators, or havoc wreaked in the natural world by twisters, damaged NASA spacecraft and ship-sinking icebergs, Paxton’s characters often found themselves entangled within stories in which people fought against external forces much bigger than themselves. For his 2001 directorial debut, Frailty, Paxton crafted a film that offered a far more internal and insidious source of terror, using the apparent psychosis of a well-intentioned parent to create an unfathomable scenario for a young protagonist.
Frailty opens with a man who calls himself Fenton Meiks (Matthew McConaughey) waiting in an FBI office to report that he believes his brother, who has apparently just committed suicide, is the feared God’s Hand Killer that’s been terrorizing the area. Agent Doyle (Powers Boothe) is skeptical, so Fenton starts from the beginning. From this point, the meat of the film is told through flashback, returning to the moment when the childhoods of young Fenton (Matt O’Leary) and his little brother Adam (Jeremy Sumpter) are changed forever. Despite having no other family outside of their father, the boys have enjoyed a pleasant, all-American childhood up to that point. But one night, Dad (Paxton) wakes them suddenly to frantically warn that “something’s happened”—he’s had a vision from God informing him that demons are overrunning the Earth and that he and his boys have been commissioned to destroy them.
Soon, Dad is collecting magical weapons. Celestial light shines toward a barn, where he finds a demon-slaying axe and a pair of gloves, the significance of the latter not immediately apparent. Before long, he also finds a magical lead pipe and reports to his bewildered sons that he’s been given his initial list of demons to kill. Fenton grows desperate, asking his father to consider the possibility that he’s “not right in the head.” But Dad pays no heed, trying to explain to Fenton in a warm, fatherly tone that the demons he clubs with the pipe and abducts “will look like people” but they’re not. Once they’re bound and gagged on his property, Dad removes the gloves he used during the kidnapping and touches the abductees with his bare skin, at which point their demonic essence is made manifest to him, confirming his virtue in slaying them with an axe and burying them in a nearby rose garden.
The tension takes a hit whenever the film switches back to Agent Doyle’s office to reestablish the framing device. McConaughey is far from his eventual Oscar-winning form here, delivering his lines with a detached woodenness that’s probably meant to serve as an icy-veined cover for what’s eventually revealed as underlying malice, but instead it just comes off as cheesy. But the film’s weakest link is Boothe, who plays his FBI Agent with such hackneyed incredulity that he gives his scenes a soap opera melodrama that clashes with the compelling psychological suspense that unfolds in Paxton’s scenes.
None of the performances in his directorial debut match Paxton’s own, as his Dad character slaughters with such a sense of determined righteousness, while still taking the time to actively guide his children in the way he believes they should go. He may punish Fenton by forcing him to dig the pit for what will become a cellar kill-floor, but he does so out of his version of love. When Fenton’s name shows up on his divinely revealed hit list due to Fenton’s vain attempts to report his father’s crime to authorities, Paxton’s character shows his own version of mercy by locking him in that cellar until starvation can purge the boy of evil. This creates an impossible scenario for Fenton, where powerlessness to stop what is clearly murderous delusions creates an unspeakably horrific scenario, especially as impressionable little brother Adam claims to see the family’s victims turn into demons too. Until, of course, Dad hands Fenton the ax to slay a demon and ends up getting it planted into his own chest instead.
Unfortunately, the buildup of Frailty’s pitch perfect psychological tension unravels in the third act. As his story continues to unfold, it’s revealed that McConaughey’s character is not actually Fenton, but Adam, and he leads Agent Doyle out to the rose garden only to slay him for the evil person he is. The true God’s Hand Killer’s divinely guided palm reveals that Agent Doyle once killed his mother in a fit of rage and Adam, and by extension his father, really are guided by a supernatural force to vanquish evil. This twist feels incredibly forced and undermines the unnerving setup of a child pressed to kill his own father in order to stop the murder of innocents. The gimmicky climax may weaken the film—and Paxton would only go on to direct one more feature—but his committed performance as a seemingly delusional man involving his young boys in senseless murder makes Frailty worth dusting off to memorialize one of Hollywood’s good guys.