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Bill Paxton receives directing tips from a higher power.

© 2002, Lions Gate
All Rights Reserved

While Hollywood tries to scare audiences with boogeymen, vampires and monsters of all sorts, all I need to see is a Bible-thumping, good ol' boy with a gigantic silver axe. Actor Bill Paxton's directorial debut, "Frailty" (IMDb listing) is a psychological horror film that, while keeping most of the violence off camera, will unquestionably make you pull the covers up tight when you return home.

It's is a murky, stormy night in Dallas, Texas, and a fidgety man named Fenton Meiks (Matthew McConaughey, sly and reserved) has come to FBI headquarters to tell Agent Doyle (Powers Boothe) that his brother Adam is the serial murder they've been trying to find, the God's Hands Killer. Agent Doyle doesn't really believe Fenton's story, and asks that he explain his case. This takes us back to 1979, and a young Fenton (Matthew O'Leary, in a great performance) and Adam live with their widowed father, known only to the audience only as Dad (Bill Paxton, filled with unexpected depth). While normally a peace-loving and caring father, Dad has been having visions of angels coming down from Heaven telling him that the apocalypse is coming, and that God requires him to kill all the sinning "demons." Dad takes the news with the utmost urgency, and soon takes his sons out with him to kill the "demons" using an axe that was divinely "sent" to him. While the innocent Adam turns quickly into a believer, Fenton does not, and must use his wits to try to stop his beloved father without further breaking up his family.

Unlike most of his younger, Southern Californian colleagues, Paxton has spent years in the acting trenches, working with some of the best directing talents in the business, including James Cameron, Sam Raimi and Ron Howard. All these directors have left their mark on Paxton. And now, with the actor finally ready to make his filmmaking debut, Paxton channels all that creative energy into "Frailty," which is a rousing corker of a thriller. It's a shadowy, atmospheric, significantly scary motion picture made with an unusual self-confidence that you only find in a veteran. You can clearly see the creative puzzle pieces Paxton uses as he makes his way through the film. A little Cameronesque thriller set piece here and there, and a whole lot of Raimi horror in the middle. While it's milder in tone, the film reminded me of the foggy, backwoods terror of Raimi's "Evil Dead" films, or even—to stretch a bit—Tobe Hooper's "Texas Chainsaw Massacre," in the sense that Paxton summons up incredible tension without ever actually letting the blood flow until the very end. Paxton allows the audience to imagine the horror rather than piling on the gore elemental to such a brutal story.

Paxton also embraces a unique monster for his picture, and that threat is dear old dad. What propels "Frailty" is not the actual terror of this man chasing down the "demons," but that this holy bounty hunter is a regular guy, working 9-5 as a mechanic, raising two kids on his own. Paxton gets great mileage out of this concept, as the audience is kept in the same realm of knowledge as the young Fenton. So when Dad snaps, you feel the same bewildered terror as the young characters. Paxton takes considerable strides to involve the audience in on the fear, and for the first time in a long while, he's made a horror/thriller film that will disturb you, not just assault you. Without special effects, a pounding score, weapons of mass destruction or gallons of crimson blood to hide behind, "Frailty" just leaves the audience with the disturbing story, allowing it alone to frighten and absorb them.

But the weakness of "Frailty" is that it climaxes on a very poetic, haunting note. Like the end of a symphony, the climatic action rises like a cymbal crescendo and burrows into your chest like a tympani roll. Unfortunately though, that's not where Paxton ends his film. The picture then rolls out another 5 minutes that, while they service the story and tie up the loose ends, feel extraneous and go a long way to diluting the mind-bomb effect of the plot. I understand the necessity of a coda, but I wasn't too concerned with dangling plot threads when the movie just hit an absolute perfect peak in its climax.

Filmfodder Grade: A

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