Frailty (review)

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Touched by a Devil

Bill Paxton is just about the last guy in the world you’d expect to be a serial killer. Nice, ordinary, All-American guy — drives a pickup truck, probably; has a big goofy dog that wears a bandana and catches frisbees, most likely; has 2.5 kids and actually enjoys mowing the lawn. He’s, you know, a little bit boring. Not to be insulting, cuz I love the guy, and I’m sure offscreen he’s terribly dashing and exciting, and this flick proves he’s got talents beyond his underutilized and underappreciated acting abilities*, but that’s just the way it is. He’s not one of those “quiet ones” we’re always supposed to be watching out for, the ones about whom the neighbors gasp in shock that “ohmigosh, he was such a nice man” but always secretly knew that he simply had to have heads in jars in the basement. Paxton is one of those ordinary neighbors who’d be gasping “ohmigosh.”

But he’s the deranged killer here. The deranged, ax-murdering, serial-killer-van-driving killer who thinks he’s on a mission from God to destroy demons and buries his victims in the community rose garden… and helps his young sons with their math homework (when they’re not helping Dad in the rose garden) and gently scolds the tow-headed one when he comes up with his own demon hit list. How likely is it that the bully at school is really a demon? Paxton asks while tousling his boy’s hair. Ya gotta admire the kid’s initiative, but still: what a rascal.

Which is why Frailty is so damned creepy. It sends a shiver up my spine just thinking about the movie now, even as I gaze out the window onto a gorgeous, happy, sunshiny day. It’ll be great when this one finally comes out on DVD, cuz then I’ll be able to curl up on the couch in the middle of the night wrapped in an old afghan for protection and give myself the wild heebie-jeebies watching it.

How good is this flick? In the horrifying way that it turns the supernatural and the insane into an ordinary part of everyday life, it out-Kings Stephen King. It’s like one of those scarifying episodes of The X-Files — like the one where the inbreds kept their mother/wife under the bed *heebie-jeebie* — before it started to suck. It’s totally perverse — that’s a compliment — in that don’t-touch-me, I-need-a-shower way.

And there are layers of creepiness. The tale of Dad and the rose garden is actually relayed by one of his grown sons, years later. Matthew McConaughey (The Wedding Planner, EDtv) strolls into an FBI field office one lonely night and tells Agent Wesley Doyle (Powers Boothe) that he thinks that someone the Feds are looking for — a lunatic who calls himself the God’s Hand killer — is actually his brother, continuing the family business, so to speak. Now, McConaughey tells Doyle that his name is Fenton Meiks, which is a serial-killer name if I ever heard one, and, well, McConaughey gives me willies in general, so of course one has to wonder how honest Fenton is being. We flash back to small-town Texas in 1979, and Fenton assures us how he resisted Dad’s delusions, how he fought Dad, how he told Dad he wasn’t right in the head. How much can we trust of what he’s saying? Is it possible he’s making it all up?

Screenwriter Brent Hanley made this all up, and it’s a brilliant and subtle first script, perverting and subverting family dynamics — who do you root for when a loving if insane father snaps at a rebellious son who refuses to dig a grave? — and giving us, in Dad and in the God’s Hand killer, two of the most banal depictions of evil I’ve ever seen. Paxton (Vertical Limit, U-571) makes his directorial debut here, directing himself to an understated performance — Dad is no raving lunatic, but calm, earnest, and so damn normal, a regular guy who just happens to destroy demons as a hobby. The whole affair is subdued, quiet, almost calm, making Frailty all the more chilling, and Hanley and Paxton manage to make the inevitable surprising, making Frailty all the more suspenseful.

Watching Frailty, I not only forgot to look at my watch, I forgot I had a raging headache, forgot this was my third screening of the day and I hadn’t had time for lunch and I was starving, forgot everything except Dad and Fenton and demons and the rose garden. Being transported by a movie like that is good thing, and a rare one. I wish it happened more often.

*By the by, Bill, will you marry me?

Addendum 09.24.02
DVD commentary tracks, when they’re good, are like having the filmmakers in the room with you, sharing the inside scoop. Director and star Bill Paxton’s commentary track on the Frailty DVD is intimate and generous as he shares his enthusiasm for the film and his clearly genuine appreciation of his cast and crew. Unlike some commentary tracks, which lapse into uncomfortable and awkward silence for long minutes, Paxton’s never lags — he’s full of tidbits and secrets and a charming eagerness to share his love of moviemaking, his un-Hollywood joy in working with child actors, and his rabid fascination with Hitchcock. And damn if his invocation of one of the Great Ones isn’t justified: his debut feature is little gem, one that gets better with re-viewing and that his vivacity makes all the more enjoyable. (Another commentary track features screenwriter Brent Hanley, and a third editor Arnold Glassman, producer David Kirschner and composer Brian Tyler.)

Other terrific features include a making-of doc that goes more in-depth than the standard promotional pieces DVDs often extol as an extra, demonstrating how the devotion of all involved showed itself in the finished film. “Anatomy of a Scene,” via the Sundance Channel, dissects a pivotal scene yet has only minor spoilers and is pretty damn thrilling for film geeks who are fascinated by how illusions are constructed for film, and how being forced by a tight budget to be creative can often be the best thing for a film’s artistry. Geeks will also find the gallery of storyboards extremely cool — they show how closely preproduction planning carried over to the set and the editing room. And you can watch a handful of deleted scenes both with and without Paxton’s commentary — he talks about how an organic film will tell you what it does and doesn’t need, what should be cut and what shouldn’t. This is a great package for lovers of the film.

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