Doubtless, many of you know the late great actor Bill Paxton, whose career spanned decades, including such hits as The Terminator (1984), Aliens (1986), Near Dark (1987) Twister (1996). However, few are aware of his sole directorial debut, Frailty, released on November 7th 2001 which is a shame, because it deserves to be just as widely known as the rest of his filmography.
The film begins with Lester (Matthew McConaughey) an unassuming man paying a urgent visit to FBI headquarters, where he claims to the cynical on-duty agent there (Powers Boothe) to know the identity of the ‘Hand of God’- a fanatical serial killer terrorizing the populace- his own brother, Adam. From here, we are transported back to Lester and Adam’s idyllic Norman Rockwell-esque suburban childhood with their loving blue collar single father (played by Paxton himself). However, their innocence ends when their father claims to receive divine visions commanding him to kill demons, who he believes are disguised among the populace as ordinary humans and forces his young sons to aid him in his crimes.
The fear of watching a loved one, especially a parent, becoming untethered from the moorings of sanity is a palpable one, and Frailty utilizes it for all it’s worth. The slow mental degeneration of the boys’ father from ordinary working man into raving lunatic is one of the finest and most harrowing performances of Paxton’s career. Lester’s reluctance contrasts to Adam’s eagerness to help their father in doing the ‘Lord’s work’ drives a wedge in the once close-knit family and further obfuscates the veneer of delusion and reality, forcing the viewer themselves to question whether the father is right. His sons’ struggle to reconcile their love for him and his brutal actions provides both equal poignancy and horror. The unravelling of an ordinary family under extraordinary circumstances in many ways evokes Ari Aster’s hit Hereditary (2018). Through its usage of religious imagery and in showing the extremities of zealotry, the film can in many ways be considered a spiritual precursor to another directorial debut, Rose Glass’ recently released and critically acclaimed Saint Maud (2019). Though the long running time may lend itself to some tedium, Frailty is a masterwork in psychological horror that keeps you invested and on the edge of your seat, right up until its final shocking scene.