While most movie ads have to settle for rapturous blurbs from mere mortal film reviewers, the early one for Frailty, a new thriller that marks actor Bill Paxton's directorial debut, is adorned with raves from A-list directors James Cameron and Sam Raimi and bestselling author Stephen King. Of course, Cameron has worked with Paxton on several occasions (including Titanic), Raimi directed him to his best performance in A Simple Plan, and King is known for putting his name on anything placed in front of him. So much for unbiased opinions.
That's not to say this dark, dank picture doesn't deserve some accolades; turning a cold shoulder toward the sensationalist mindset that creates such dum-dum works as the current High Crimes, Frailty is a smartly woven chiller that takes its ideas and its characters very seriously. But all the good intentions in the world can't help a mystery that lays too many of its cards on the table too early, and it's this predictability that largely turns the film into a middling drama rather than a true shocker like Seven or The Others.
Debuting screenwriter Brent Hanley has said that he watched a lot of Hitchcock films as well as Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter as he began writing his script. Frankly, I don't see much Hitchcock on view (then again, what novice filmmaker doesn't claim to have been influenced by The Master?), but Hunter's fingerprints are all over this thing. Shot in constant darkness and steeped in religious allegory and philosophical overtones, Frailty explores the mindset of genuinely disturbed people who nevertheless pass themselves off as servants of God. The central figure is the head of the Meiks household; known in the film simply as Dad (Paxton), he's a widower raising his two young sons, 12-year-old Fenton (Matt O'Leary) and 9-year-old Adam (Jeremy Sumpter), in rural Texas in 1979. Dad's a decent, mild-mannered mechanic, but that changes on the night he claims he's been visited by one of God's angels and instructed to rid the earth of demons that have taken human form. Before long, he comes up with a list of names of those deemed to be demons, and he systematically begins murdering these individuals and burying them in the rose garden behind his property.
Adam believes wholeheartedly in his father's words and actions, but Fenton thinks his pop has lost his mind and is murdering innocent people. For his part, Dad has been informed by the angel that young Fenton is himself a demon and must be eliminated; since he simply can't kill his own child, he resorts to torturous methods to convince his son to accept God -- and his gory mission -- into his life.
The tale of Dad and his kids is presented in flashback; the modern-day material finds one of the grown-up Meiks boys (played by Matthew McConaughey) relating the events to a skeptical FBI agent (Powers Boothe). Initially, both sections of the film seem to work well in tandem, but eventually it becomes clear that the present-day slant that serves as the puncture which allows too much air to seep out of Hanley's story.
Taken on its own merits, the flashback portion of the film is excellent: Between Paxton's assured direction and the gloomy camerawork by Bill Butler (Jaws), it emerges as a nasty slice of American Gothic, using sparse strokes to demonstrate with frightening clarity how the sins of the father are often shoveled onto the heads of the unsuspecting offspring. Paxton finds the right note of earnest anxiety to portray the feverishly religious Dad -- this isn't a typical bug-eyed portrayal of a Bible-thumping rube but rather an honest attempt by the actor to create an upright citizen who listens to the voices in his head a little too intently -- while young O'Leary delivers an impressive performance as the boy whose fear of his father never quite overrules his desire to put an end to the killings.
These segments alone would have made for an utterly compelling movie, but Hanley dilutes the potency by framing it with a contemporary storyline that makes it relatively easy to figure out where this is largely headed. To his credit, he doesn't just spring the plot twists on us at the conclusion; instead, he's very careful to lace the film with clues, either through visuals (note the ring on McConaughey's hand in his introductory sequence) or dialogue (pay particular attention to the discussion between McConaughney and Boothe regarding the former's sleuthing instincts). On the other hand, there is such a thing as overkill, and without giving too much away, let's just say that some of the hints, as well as the shrouded work by McConaughney and Boothe (it's clear that both characters are up to something from the get-go), result in obvious revelations that strip the finale of its power.