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Frailty (2002)
Director: Bill Paxton

review by Steven Hampton

Perhaps it was a mistake for first time director Bill Paxton to star in his own film, especially when he burdens himself with the drama's most difficult acting role (as the - probably insane - father of two boys), and makes his work behind the camera more difficult by playing most of his scenes opposite young actor Jeremy Sumpter and newcomer Matt O'Leary. Frailty is a serial killer mystery with a neat twist ending, but it's laboriously slow and hysterically pretentious, at times. A showy attempt to mimic the style of David Lynch in scary mode, but without the imaginative flair or fashionably weird atmosphere such an approach to modern cinema obviously requires.
   The small Texas town of God's Hand is, once again, being terrorised by bizarre unsolved murders, so FBI agent Doyle (Powers Boothe) is intrigued when Meiks (Matthew McConaughey) strolls into the federal offices and claims he knows who the apparently copycat new killer is. What follows is a series of fascinating but tediously paced flashbacks as Meiks recounts his family's darkest secrets, starting with his widowed father's visions of a messenger angel that instructs him to kill 'demons' as part of the Lord's work. This involves kidnapping ordinary seeming local folks and slaughtering them with a supposedly blessed axe, and making his very frightened sons watch their dear old dad chopping up his victims. Dad also forces his older son to help him bury the fresh bodies in a rose garden. Whether the unnamed father character is truly mad, or genuinely psychic (and so able to see the 'evil crimes' that have marked his victims for death), is the story's decidedly ambiguous supernatural element. Either way, it's all highly subjective, wholly dependent on fervent religious belief.
   Wisely, Paxton has chosen to exploit the artistic cred of cinematographer Bill Butler and surround himself with a football team's worth of producers, and I'm sure this would have smoothed the way for him to focus on what little creativity was possible in this claustrophobic and visceral chiller, yet the film is ultimately a failure. Although reportedly praised by Paxton's pal James Cameron (well, okay, we'll let one that slide), acclaimed as "the cutting edge of horror" by the Daily Mail's critic Christopher Tookey (is he Britain's archenemy of serious genre filmmaking, or what?), and rather foolishly compared to Laughton's classic Night Of The Hunter (1955), Paxton's overblown chiller Frailty is an unfortunately hollow promise. It not a bad film, as such, it just feels too restrained as it lacks any on-screen bloodletting, despite the numerous possibilities for standard slasher thriller violence. It's one thing to generate a brooding and briefly disturbing atmosphere, but Paxton ought to have realised (having appeared in the likes of Aliens, Near Dark, and Predator 2) that today's audiences actually want the gore of severed heads and limbless torsos. Clever suggestion will only get their interest, it won't hold their attention for long, and that is certainly (forgive my bad pun) Frailty's most obvious weakness.
Frailty

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