The Axe of the Apostles
It's always interesting when an established actor makes his debut as a feature director, simply because their choice of project is often very illuminating. In Play Misty For Me, Clint Eastwood embarked upon the deconstruction of his screen persona he's continued on-and-off ever since, and with That Thing You Do Tom Hanks confirmed that wholesome nostalgic Americana really does run through his veins like blood.
I'm a little unsure of what Bill Paxton's Frailty tells us about him, though. Admittedly Paxton isn't as big a star as Eastwood or Hanks but he's headlined blockbusters in the past and, let us not forget, played a key role in the most successful film of all time (he was the marine archaeologist in Titanic).
The bulk of Frailty is set in 1979 and is the story of young Fenton Meeks (Matthew O'Leary), a boy living with his little brother Adam (Jeremy Sumpter) and their Dad (Paxton, maintaining the tradition of actor-directors casting themselves in key roles) in small-town Texas. Although their mother is dead the boys lead happy lives, but all this is about to change. One evening Dad announces that God has sent him a message: the world is infested with demons that look just like regular folks, and it's up to the Meeks family to hunt them out and destroy them. Fenton's initial vague unease becomes acute when Dad comes home with the 'special weapons' God has sent for them to use: a pair of gardening gloves, a length of lead pipe and what's technically known as a great big axe.
Fenton realizes Dad has gone off the deep end, but what can he do about it? He can't turn his own father over to the police, but neither can he persuade him to stop his dreadful crusade. Matters soon reach crunch point when Dad decides it's time for Fenton to take his turn with the axe.
While the initial scene-setting stuff is a bit lacking in subtlety, once Dad starts having his visions Frailty turns into an extremely effective psychological horror movie, deeply rooted in the American Gothic tradition of the Deep South. In fact, it plays like a superior Stephen King adaptation, contrasting Fenton's coming of age and loss of innocence with the family's increasing skewed home life. The film succeeds in a big way in its depiction of the banality of Dad's madness: for example, Dad and Adam treat their rides out to procure more victims to be hacked to death in the cellar the way other families would trips to the football or fishing.
The performances from the two boys are very good indeed, easily as good as Paxton's own assured turn. Dad seems to have been shrewdly written to play to Bill Paxton's own strengths as an actor: while he can do Regular Leading Man if required to (Twister) he's equally good at a kind of sleazy and/or unstable good ol' boy (Aliens, True Lies), shading off into berserk hillbilly psychosis when necessary (Near Dark). For the most part he keeps Dad quite low-key, which obviously makes the eye-rolling and axe-wielding more arresting when it comes.
Paxton seems to have adopted a similar approach in his direction: this isn't a movie of overt gore or shock moments (though there are a little of both), it relies instead on a constant, broodingly intense and oppressive atmosphere. (Brian Tyler's score helps enormously with this.) He doesn't attempt any fancy whistles-and-bells stuff with the camera, either, but his deft touch with some of the scene transitions and the small number of visual effects the film uses suggests talent as a director. He also manages to keep the metaphorical elements of the story; this can be interpreted as a film about child abuse, and cycles of violence within families - subtle but unmistakable.
So it's really a terrible, terrible shame that Brent Hanley's script is wrecked by a framing story where one of the boys, now grown (and played by a dead-eyed Matthew McConaughey) recounts his childhood to an FBI agent (Powers Booth) investigating a serial killer known as God's Hand. This leads into an unnecessarily convoluted twist ending, which isn't nearly as clever or shocking as it thinks it is. It seems sometimes that, post-The Sixth Sense, everyone directing a horror film feels obliged to put a twist ending in, no matter how damaging it is to the fabric and tone of the movie. In this case, it turns what could been a simple but highly effective chiller into what feels like a mediocre episode of The X Files.
I can't stress strongly enough how badly the ending disappointed me. But the rest of it is great and Paxton has nothing to be ashamed of either as lead actor or director. But the fact remains that while often highly impressive, Frailty is a deeply and unnecessarily flawed movie.