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Why 'Frailty' is the best horror movie you (probably) haven't seen
For its 20th anniversary, let's take a deep dive into Bill Paxton's slow-burn (and terrifying) feature film directorial debut.
The late, great Bill Paxton had a gift that made him perfectly suited to genre cinema: He could sell just about anything.
There was an inherent naturalism to the Texas native's acting, a laid-back quality that meant you were happy to spend a couple of hours with him up on a screen in front of you, no matter what role he was playing. But Paxton didn't just take that naturalism and charm into the realms of realism. He was great at realistic drama, but he also had a taste for sci-fi, fantasy, and horror, and when he was placed in the midst of something absolutely unreal, that naturalism was somehow still there. Whether he was fighting Xenomorphs on a distant planet or drinking blood in the American West, he was somehow still the same natural, immediately compelling actor.
With Frailty, his feature directorial debut, Paxton took that knack for naturalism and stretched it beyond acting and into the filmmaking itself. It's a film centered on belief, and derives its central terror from the idea that truth sometimes defies reason, and yet it's never over-the-top or particularly sensational. It required a director with an inherent understanding of how to sell the fantastical alongside the natural. With Paxton, Frailty got that director, and the result is a film that remains a somewhat undervalued horror classic, 20 years after its 2002 release.
Though the film takes a nonlinear approach to its story, which unfolds half in the present day of 2002 and half in 1979, the central premise behind Frailty is very direct. Paxton plays a hardworking, loving father to two sons whose lives change overnight when he has what he describes as a vision from God. An angel of the Lord has told him that it is his family's charge to "destroy" demons hiding in human form ahead of the coming Biblical apocalypse. To do this, he's given three weapons — a pipe, a pair of gloves, and an axe — a list of names, and the ability to see the sins of the demons by laying his hands on them.
The father then sets out to begin his holy mission, completely convinced it's the right thing to do. His sons, however, are divided over what's happening. The youngest, Adam (Jeremy Sumpter), trusts his father implicitly, and even claims he can see what his father sees as the demons emerge. The oldest, Fenton (Matt O'Leary), simply thinks his father has gone insane and become not just a serial killer, but a serial killer actively forcing his children to be collaborators. This familial tension spills over into the present day, when an adult Fenton (Matthew McConaughey) tells the whole story to an FBI agent (Powers Boothe) in the hope of getting everything, including Adam's latter-day attempts to carry on their father's work, off his chest.
At least, that's the way things initially appear. Frailty is a twisty, tension-laden movie rich with moral and philosophical dilemma, and it all starts with that initial pivot. If the father isn't able to convince the audience of what's happening right away, the rest of the film falls apart. Because Paxton is not just the director, but the central character, his peerless ability to make audiences believe some very dark and bizarre things makes the entire film work. We don't know as the film begins if the father is actually seeing holy visions, but we know that he believes he is, and that's enough. It's enough to sell the terror of those early "demon destroying" sequences. It's enough to sell the terror in the eyes of the boys as they each come to terms with what their father is doing in a different way. And it's enough to set up the emotional tension that will run the whole length of the film.
But of course, selling that central idea isn't the only thing Paxton has to do in this film. As a director, he proves immediately and strikingly adept at delivering both visual flair and narrative propulsion. There's not a wasted moment in Frailty's 99 minutes, as Paxton establishes the central darkness looming over the story, flashes back to a seemingly idyllic Texas childhood, then rips it all apart with a swing of an ax. He makes a rose garden, a symbol of life and beauty, into a place that's both redemptive and damning. He centers the young actors who play his sons, getting the absolute most out of their performances as they deliver to the audience two sides of a family at war with itself.
And of course, as an actor himself, Paxton delivers in every scene, somehow managing to be both frightening and sympathetic throughout most of his character's tragic and disturbing run time.
But the thing that makes Frailty endure beyond its solid filmmaking craft, something Paxton carried over from Brent Hanley's screenplay, is the multiple levels of terror at work in the story. We see it in Fenton and Adam's responses to their father's supposed mission, and the same dynamic carries on throughout the entire film. Is the father simply a deranged man who had sudden psychotic break and started murdering random strangers with an ax? Is he actually an avenging angel charged by God with removing evil from the world? If he was actually a demon slayer with a holy mission, would that actually be more comforting?
The film's intricate and complex structure forces us to constantly confront these questions, to wonder what we'd do if we were forced to pick a side in this holy war, whether it's real or imagined. Those questions, and the way Paxton's film asks them, make Frailty a gem of early 2000s horror, one that more viewers should be revisiting.