Last Sunday the brilliant Bill Paxton passed and the world lost one amazing actor who had made our movie hearts soar for decades. With such memorable and quirky character roles as the bully brother Chet in John Hughes Weird Science, blowhard Private Hudson in James Cameron’s flawless Aliens and the cocky killer vampire Severen in Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark, Paxton created some of the most iconic on-screen roles during one very long and lush career that I was so proud to be able to grow up with and witness. (Plus for stunning standout stuff check out Carl Franklin’s One False Move and Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan – five-star Paxton work!) From Trespass (a Walter Hill hidden gem) to Tombstone, True Lies to Apollo 13 and Twister to Titanic (and a little Edge of Tomorrow too!), Paxton was a movie man whose contribution to the cinema will indeed be missed. So I’m dedicated this week’s column to a Hitchcockian horror hidden gem that the late, great Paxton not only starred in, but also impressively made his feature film directing debut. A five-star terror tale that sends chills up the spine known as…Frailty.
Fenton and Adam Meiks are two happy young brothers who live with their Dad. As their only living parent, their father is a good, honest, patient and hard-working man who cares for them both a great deal. But one night their father claims to have been visited by an angel and to have been chosen by God to destroy demons on earth that seemingly look human. With skeptical older brother Fenton weary of his Dad’s tall tale and younger impressionable Adam devoted to his dear old Dad and fully on board the question remains – are these people Mr. Meiks is seeking actually demons or is it simply murder?
There’s no getting around the fact that Frailty is first and foremost a sensational and suspenseful story. Penned by writer Brent Hanley, the script is extremely well crafted and even though it mindfully projects an heir of something’s not right throughout, it still nevertheless earns it’s ending. Plus it’s a tribute to Paxton as a debut director here. Not only did he recognize that the story was stellar, but he wisely put it to the forefront – the true star of the flick. Not to say that Paxton doesn’t tell a well-woven tale visually, as the screen savvy Frailty has more than enough creepy imagery and well-earned dark dramatic pauses to slam the story home. But there’s the ever looming question throughout the duration of the film that captivates – are Paxton’s earnest father’s visions real? Is he a man of God or a raving psychotic with an unholy justification for mass murder? It’s such taunting terror that gives Frailty a can’t-take-your-eyes-off-it quality and the sinister style via Paxton on serves to enhance the evil.
Plus Paxton casts his flick skillfully, which again serves the scary saga. Pulling double duty, Paxton plays the earnest proud but probably mental pop to an eerie tee and makes for one creepy character conundrum. As his young sons Fenton and Adam, Matt O’Leary and Jeremy Sumpter are heartbreakingly terrific and relatable playing the two sides of the skeptical audiences opinions. Plus as the grown up bother/narrator and a lawman he confides in, Matthew McConaughey and Powers Boothe add awesome acting gravitas that gives Frailty an extra bold boost. (Their scenes together are great acting 101!) But again all involved wisely put the screenplay first and as such their effective work helps squeeze all odd and interesting bits out and into the open – a testament to a near perfect narrative.
While Paxton of course went on to create a ton of memorable characters and even direct one more feature (the Shia LaBeouf starring flick The Greatest Game Ever Played), the power of Frailty as a frightful flick sticks with you. A pure exercise in unsettling cinema, Frailty is fear and faith put to the ultimate test – and one damn fine debut. (Thanks Bill)