Bill Paxton’s new film is an effectively creepy Texas-set gothic thriller which marks an impressive directorial debut. The serial killer genre has been pretty much mined out with “Silence of the Lambs” and “Se7en” setting a high standard the many clones can’t nearly approach. Yet it still proves a fascinating subject and even a very mainstream studio take such as “Copycat” proved effectively informative and entertaining.
“Frailty” comes a close fourth – it works simply because Paxton never tries to overreach or turn things Hollywood flashy style – he keeps tight control of the action on screen which is helped along by Brent Hanley’s solid and intimate script revolving around just 5-6 characters and very downbeat settings which are superbly lit by cinematographer Bill Butler to give each shot a real sense of atmosphere. Its an old type of substance over style filmmaking which is sorely missing from the multiplexes of today.
Performances are solid too, Paxton is prefectly credible as a loving father whose killing spree is motivated by an irrational belief he’s been touched by God to do his work on Earth. McConaughey is over the top a little but otherwise gives a perfectly presentable go as the adult Fenton, and Boothe whose been more well known for over-the-top bad guys of late underplays it well here as a detective (even if he makes some totally illogical plot choices – ie. no ‘backup’ in the last few scenes).
Yet again however its 14-year-old Matt O’Leary who steals the show and while he doesn’t stand out like he did in his debut in “Domestic Disturbance”, the young man has proven the most astonishing talent I’ve seen in a kid in recent years (and more likeable than Haley Joel). Each convincingly play their roles in a single parent family but one driven into increasingly darker places by the religious fanaticism of the father who likes to use a more picturesque ax than a simple gun to dispose of his victims. Its the scenes where the children stand helpless watching the horror display in front of them and each trying to deal with it in their own way (in a refreshingly believable manner) that remain etched in the memory after this experience.
There are downsides though – by holding such tight control over proceedings, the sheer restraint means certain elements just don’t stand out and whilst the story and acting is organised well it never breaks new ground. The atmospheric visuals can’t hide the sheer TV-scope of the story which certainly isn’t particularly original, whilst the pacing languishes at times.
The dark tension is relentless which some will find exhausting or too oppressive, and whilst the ending has good (albeit somewhat stagey) twists it then slips into a epilogue which feels like another movie (and an inferior one) in both look and style. Nevertheless the problems are minor – Paxton has started right out of the gate with a astute piece of work which may not buoy your mood or win any awards, but is certainly an above average thriller that’s frighteningly compelling and worthy of several viewings to fully appreciate its message.