Saturday, April 14, 2012

#130: Frailty (Bill Paxton, 2001)

There's a tired running joke that Bill Paxton and Bill Pullman are the same guy, I guess because their names are similar. They don't really look alike, other than being white guys of roughly similar age with brown hair. As actors, the two couldn't be more different. Pullman, a New Yorker, is sarcastic, tightly wound, and sometimes mannered, while Paxton, a Texan, is more down-to-earth and more comfortable playing naive innocents, buffoons, and goodhearted working-class men. Paxton sometimes gets a rap for being a bad actor, but I've always enjoyed his work. He's been in a lot of great movies and lived a fascinating life.

I'm not being hyperbolic when I use the word "fascinating." As a child, Paxton was in the crowd when President Kennedy was assassinated. He got his start in films by working as a production designer for Roger Corman, working on tons of drive-in and exploitation classics. Falling in love with acting by working on so many of Corman's sets, Paxton moved to New York and studied with Stella Adler. His film credits include Stripes, Streets of Fire, The Terminator, Weird Science ("you're stewed, buttwad"), Commando, Aliens ("game over, man, game over"), Near Dark (one of the greatest vampire movies), The Dark Backward, One False Move, Trespass, Tombstone, Apollo 13, Titanic, and A Simple Plan. In his rare downtime, Paxton managed to form a rock band, Martini Ranch, with members of Devo, and direct a few movies and Barnes & Barnes' video for "Fish Heads." He's also appeared in music videos for Pat Benatar, New Order, and, um, Limp Bizkit (why, Paxton, why?).

Paxton's feature-length directing debut, Frailty, is a dark horror film about religious fundamentalism that was perhaps so dark that Paxton decided to make his next directorial project a family film about golf (The Greatest Game Ever Played). Frailty has its problems -- a sometimes obtrusive voice-over, a few obvious twists, some implausibilities, and the presence of smarm-oozer Matthew McConaughey (though he does give a dialed-down performance). However, Frailty mostly rises above its own weaknesses. Paxton is a visually subtle director with a nice sense of atmosphere and place. He and his editor skillfully build tension and most of the performances are effective. The religious fundamentalist subject matter is spookily timely in our current climate of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, our own country's hysterical fear of average, non-terrorist Islamic people, fundamentalist Christian nutjobs who've managed to infiltrate the mainstream platform of the GOP, the Westboro Baptist Church, and the absolutist insanity of the comments page on every website. In particular, I admire Paxton's refusal to soften this material. As I mentioned earlier, this is a dark movie that just gets darker.

The less you know about Frailty, the better, so you may want to skip this paragraph if you haven't seen it yet. I'll avoid spoiling most of the twists, but I do want to give a brief summary of the film's subject matter and storyline. The film opens at FBI headquarters in Dallas. Regional director Wesley Doyle (Powers Boothe, a great cult actor with a great name) walks in on a late night to find a man waiting in his office (McConaughey). The man says he knows who the elusive God's Hand Killer is and proceeds to tell Doyle a long story about his childhood. These flashback sequences make up the bulk of the film. McConaughey's character grew up in small-town Texas with his brother and his widowed father (Paxton). The two boys, Fenton and Adam (Matt O'Leary and Adam Sumpter), and their dad are a tight-knit, loving family until one night when Dad wakes the boys up to tell them he's received a religious vision from one of God's angels. The angel tells Dad that he and his sons have been chosen to avenge the lord until the impending end of days by destroying demons. Soon, Dad is kidnapping random strangers and murdering them with an axe, claiming that his victims are not real humans but Satan's minions whose names have been given to him by the angel. Youngest son Adam believes Dad, but Fenton realizes his father's gone nuts and faces the unrelenting burden of his changed daily life. The film gets darker as Dad begins murdering these "demons" in front of his young children and forcing them to help him dispose the body parts in a nearby community rose garden.

Frailty is a disturbing film in its portrait of absolutist fundamentalist belief, mental illness, and/or the possibility that this guy may really be receiving messages from God. The film leaves the possibility open that these visions may be real, but not in a way that seems wishy-washy or a copout. This film covers subject matter that frightens me in my daily life. I find religious fundamentalism terrifying in its unbending, unquestioning, irrational devotion. As someone who has struggled with depression and had family members and friends struggle with depression and bipolar disorder, I know how scary it is to see and feel good people behave in irrational, frightening ways that are out of their/my control. Lastly and leastly, my agnostic self still feels the occasional paranoia that my Catholic upbringing was the true path and that I will be punished someday for abandoning God and Jesus. I think anyone who was raised in a religious household still holds on to tiny shreds of belief that worm their way in when we're at our most vulnerable. (Although I want to point out that my family weren't religious zealots, just good Catholics.) (By the way, I recommend Stanley Elkin's short novel, The Living End, for a hilarious exploration of this paranoia. A liquor store owner and far from evil man who is killed during a robbery spends an eternity sentenced to hell by a petty and bureaucratic God who doesn't like that he swore a few times and opened his store on Sundays. Rules are rules. I also recommend every other thing Stanley Elkin wrote.)

Frailty is not one of those party-time, exploding-heads kind of horror films. Instead, it presents a dark and twisted look at the unwell parts of us and slowly builds a creeping dread and tension. I admired it despite its flaws and recommend it. I hope Paxton directs another horror film someday.
Weird fact: Though this film is set in Dallas and two small Texas towns and stars a trio of Texan actors (Paxton, Boothe, and McConaughey), Frailty was filmed in several California towns.

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