Not hard to see why Bill Paxton's singular psychological horror movie, Frailty (2002), is in the DVD cut-out bins less than five years after it was initially released: it is not the kind of horror movie that lets viewers off easily. Grimly oppressive and surprisingly sure-handed for first-time director Paxton, the movie is a grueling look at religious mania, murder and psychological battering largely told from the point of view of a pre-teen boy (Matt O’Leary). It's about as far removed from your average teen-marketed slice-and-dice horror outing as you can get — with much more of a lingering aftertaste. Definitely not the type of scary movie you'd wanna use as a date flick.
The movie centers around a Texas family in the late 70's, the Meiks (them what'll inherit the Earth?): a single parent family led by widower Dad (Paxton). As told in the present day by one of his two sons (Matthew McConaughey) to a hard-bitten F.B.I. agent (Powers Boothe), Dad (we're never given a first name) is a mechanic who has a revelation while at work one day. The Voice of God has spoken to him, telling him that there are demons walking the world and that it's his family's job to destroy them. "So we're like superheroes?" asks younger son Adam (Jeremy Sumpter), who immediately wants to know what powers the Lord will confer on 'em.
Older son Fenton has his doubts about Dad’s vision. "Maybe you just dreamed it," he says. "Maybe, maybe, you're not right in the head." But he's unable to sway the old man from his new righteous path. Armed with his "magical weapons" – an old ax, a lead pipe and two work gloves – and holding onto a list of names, he takes the two boys out with him as he tracks down names from his list, "destroys" them (it's not murder, he reassures both kids, since the victims are not really human) and buries the bodies in the towns public rose garden. (Among the victims: a young Cynthia Ettinger from Carnivále and Deadwood.) When Fenton starts to buck against his father, he's locked in a cellar for a week without food and only a single serving of water per day.
Pretty unstinting (Leonard Maltin, describing Frailty in his film guide, judges the movie as "difficult to digest – especially for a parent"), and it'd probably be even more so if the movie didn't periodically flash forward to McConaughey telling the story as Fenton. Paxton is especially chilling as the millennialist patriarch. I've always had difficulty accepting him when he plays straightforward heroes (c.f. Twister), in large part because his blunted affect is so much more appropriate for twistier characters (A Simple Plan, HBO's Big Love). In Frailty, director Paxton gets actor Paxton playing to his strengths, and the results are profoundly creepy. Laying hands on his victims to see the evil within them, he's like a manic faith healer in reverse, but the moments that have the biggest staying power are the scenes where he sits and calmly explains the rules of his holy mission to his sons. This, the audience realizes, is what true madness looks like.
Except, of course, scriptwriter Brent Hanley throws in some third act twists that, while not exactly supporting everything that Dad has told his kids at the very least takes us into paranormal territory. McConaughey's character proves to be an ultra-unreliable narrator, which Boothe's F.B.I. agent learns to his dismay. But far from being the kind of cheesy twist modern horror flicks toss out like cats scaring a nervous heroine, Frailty's work to get us questioning the comforting assumptions that most of us have used to get a grip on what we've been seeing — appearing, at one level, to endorse the Manichean madness within it while not actually doing so. A horror flick for our times, thinks I.