Frailty features Bill Paxton as both director and a single-father who believes that he’s been tasked by God to slay demons disguised as humans. But in the years following their father’s death, one son will carry on his family’s dark legacy while another attempts to turn in his blood-thirsty sibling. And the story he shares with police will leave everyone watching shaken to the core.
The first feature film directed by Bill Paxton, Frailty remains a testament to a man who was just as talented behind the camera as he was in front of it.
For what’s essentially a twisted family drama wrapped up in a tense thriller, the movie’s tone is surprisingly grounded. Paxton could have easily approached Frailty in a number of ways. The concept itself likely conjures up visions of Jack Nicholson as the ax-wielding Jack Torrance in The Shining, so it would have been very easy to get lost in scene chewing, cheap gore, and a hollow mystery. But while a lesser talent may have gone the easy route of upping the camp and cheap scares, Paxton understood the power of the material he had in front of him, electing to let the performances shine in more subdued, unnervingly believable ways.
From start to finish, you’ll be attempting to devise whether Paxton’s single father of two is legitimately crazy, sincere in his mission to slay demons, or something far more malicious. More so, you’ll be left heartbroken by the emotional toll such a morally and ethically bankrupt killing spree takes on two young boys. Matt O’Leary and Jeremy Sumpter are perfectly cast as brothers Fenton and Adam, what with the way their increasingly rocky relationship not only feels authentic but also in the way it degrades as the two find themselves taking opposing views on their father’s handiwork.
And together, these three actors feel like a family simultaneously being ripped apart at the seams and somehow strengthened by their perverse, blood-soaked family outings. It’s a difficult task to get strong performances out of a single child actor, especially in a lead role. But to do so with two young actors while also playing their father–and a character as mentally unhinged as this one–Paxton was clearly only scratching at the surface of what he was capable of.
FLAWED, SORT OF
Now, if there is a flaw worth mentioning in Frailty it would be how the material ultimately feels a little thin. How the run time feels a just a little bit squandered.
See, while the twisted relationship between a father and his sons–as well as the one between two brothers–is tense, touching, and painful to watch rot before our eyes, there’s not quite enough present to fill the movie’s full one-hundred minute run time. The familiar part of the movie is set years in the past. Meanwhile, the movie is book-ended by some present day scenes featuring Matthew McConaughey as a now-grown Fenton informing the FBI of his brother’s role as the “God’s Hand” serial killer. And it’s these modern day scenes that come across as lackluster padding. Most of the movie is concerned with Fenton sharing his horrifying childhood. And while these scenes of him as an adult do eventually provide a nice little epilogue to the story, they’re not all the interesting. The real appeal to the movie is the family’s relationship and the ever-present question of Paxton’s character’s sanity. And spending twenty or so more minutes exploring those relationships and that question further would have been time much better spent than watching McConaughey doing nothing of importance.
Bill Paxton remains beloved and respected for his roles in a number of great (and some not-so great) movies and TV shows. But his brief career as a director also deserves some attention. Frailty, fortunately, highlights his talent as both. It certainly isn’t for everyone due to its subject matter. But I think anyone who watches it can still appreciate it for its strong performances and grounded approach. And that’s precisely why Bill Paxton’s Frailty is an emotionally charged viewing experience worth CHILLING with.