“He can make me dig this stupid hole, but he can’t make me pray.”
Aah, adolescence. We all bristle against our dads’ sense of morality and discipline, right? Well, some have a tougher time of it than others.
Back in 1980, Bill “We’re toast! Game over!” Paxton directed the short music video Fish Heads. Triumph enough, you say? Correct. But in 2001 he took a stab at directing the quietly disturbing supernatural thriller Frailty, with equally excellent results.
Paxton stars as a widowed, bucolic country dad awakened one night by an angel – or a bright light shining off the angel on top of a trophy on his ramshackle bedroom bookcase. Whichever – he understands now that he and his sons have been called by God to kill demons.
Whatever its flaws – too languid a pace, too trite an image of idyllic country life, Powers Boothe – Frailty manages to subvert every horror film expectation by playing right into them. We’re led through the saga of the serial killer God’s Hand by a troubled young man (Matthew McConaughey), who, with eerie quiet and reflection, recounts his childhood with Paxton’s character as a father.
Dread mounts as Paxton drags out the ambiguity over whether this man is insane, and his therefore good-hearted but wrong-headed behavior profoundly damaging his boys. Or could he really be chosen, and his sons likewise marked by God?
Brent Hanley’s sly screenplay evokes such nostalgic familiarity – down to a Dukes of Hazzard reference – and Paxton’s direction makes you feel entirely comfortable in these common surroundings. Then the two of them upend everything – repeatedly – until it’s as if they’ve challenged your expectations, biases, and your own childhood to boot.
Paxton crafts a morbidly compelling tale free from irony, sarcasm, or judgment and full of darkly sympathetic characters. It’s a surprisingly strong feature directorial debut from a guy who once played a giant talking turd.