Over the course of his career, the late Bill Paxton put together an impressive list of credits. A small, but memorable appearance in Terminator, led to star-making supporting roles in Aliens and Near Dark. By the 1990s, Paxton scored roles in several blockbusters including Apollo 13, Twister, and Titanic. But Paxton only got behind the camera to direct on two occasions. For his directorial debut, Paxton took on Southern Gothic horror with his serial killer thriller, Frailty. Though it was a modest success that many viewers likely forgot, Frailty has built a loyal fanbase. Part serial killer thriller, part psychological and religious horror, Frailty is an unnerving movie that has aged well since its release.
On a stormy night, a young man named Felton Meiks walks into an FBI office and asks to speak with Agent Wesley Doyle. For several years, Agent Doyle has headed the investigation of ‘The God’s Hand’ killer. Now Felton Meiks claims he knows the identity of the killer – his younger brother, Adam. In Doyle’s office, Felton tells a story about his father, a car mechanic, who believed God had tasked him with hunting and killing demons. For years, ‘The God’s Hand’ killer carried out his mission, forcing his young sons to assist him. One brother believed, and the other brother resisted. Which one is Felton Meiks?
Frailty a Surprisingly Restrained Psychological Thriller
Despite its subject matter, Frailty proves to be a surprisingly restrained psychological thriller. ‘Torture Porn’ was still a couple years down the road, but Se7en proceeded it by a good seven years. Hollywood proceeded to unload several gruesome serial killer thrillers. Still Paxton doesn’t give in to exploitation or cheap shocks. There’s little to nothing in the way of explicit blood and gore. And Frailty avoids cheap scares and lazy horror tropes. No jumps scares here. Instead, Frailty almost feels old-fashioned in its approach to the material. Even its story structure – an unreliable narrator offering a flashback-driven exposition – feels like something from another era. Certainly, the movie’s story is quite disturbing. But Paxton understands this and allows the audience to draw these inferences without hammering them over the head with a series of ugly reminders.
What follows completely blows the lid off of what was a psychological horror movie.
And for two thirds of the story, Frailty plays out as a morally ambiguous examination of religious fever and mental illness. However, Brent Hanley’s story takes a turn in the final act that may divide audiences. Of course, most viewers will figure out that the story has to shift at some point. Things seem too clean and simple. Frailty’s first minor surprise isn’t altogether unexpected and works with what’s been presented. What follows completely blows the lid off of what was a psychological horror movie. Simply put, Frailty’s twist changes what kind of movie you’ve been watching up to its final revelation. Though Paxton executes the sudden shift quite well – it makes one feel instantly uneasy – it may feel unnecessary to some viewers.
Frailty Benefits from Believable, Frightening Performances
From a casting perspective, Frailty clearly benefits from its performers’ believable, frightening performances. As the elder ‘Meiks’ and ‘God’s Hand Killer’, Paxton keeps things things reeled in, which only makes the character more unsettling. That is, Paxton avoids turning in a bravura, over-the-top killer. Like the movie itself, Paxton plays the ‘God’s Hand Killer’ as an ‘everyman’ who truly believes God has tasked him with a grim mission. It’s this balance between an ordinary loving father and devoutly committed executioner that sets the character apart from the serial killers found in most movies. Moreover, Paxton’s performance lends Frailty some moral ambiguity – is Meiks crazy or is really a servant of God?
Paxton avoids turning in a bravura, over-the-top killer. Like the movie itself, Paxton plays the ‘God’s Hand Killer’ as an ‘everyman’ who truly believes God has tasked him with a grim mission.
Not surprisingly, Matthew McConaughey is equally good as the grown Fenton Meeks. His work in Frailty is pretty far removed from his early frenzied role in Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation. Similar to Paxton’s delivery, McConaughey convinces with a subtle performance that balances an initial sense of emotional burden with a later deep-seated conviction. McConaughey’s makes his character’s third-act transition feel organic to the story, which also helps Frailty mostly stick its twist. Though his role is largely supporting, the late Powers Boothe was always an undervalued, strong character actor. As the younger Felton Meiks, Matt O’Leary (Sorority Row) pulls off some heavy emotional lifting for a child actor. Much of the movie relies on O’Leary and, in turn, he’s convincing as a child trapped in harrowing circumstances.
Frailty a Simmering Southern-Fried Gothic Horror Movie
Though Frailty largely flew under the radar when initially released, it has earned a respectable reputation among genre fans. And the reputation is well deserved. As a first time director, Bill Paxton eschews gratuitous shocks and nastiness for a more reserved, psychological approach to the horror. Frailty allows the nature of its subject matter itself to be the source of horror trusting our imagination to fill in the blanks. Whether its twist works will largely be a subjective reaction. On one hand, Frailty’s twist very much feels in keep with its Southern Gothic roots. Yet its more literal treatment of the subject also undoes some of its effective moral ambiguity. Regardless Frailty remains a creepy psychological horror movie well worth re-visiting.