Why Bill Paxton’s Biblical horror still haunts us
American pop culture has a long list of acceptable atrocities, that fuel the likes of the Saw franchise and twenty-one seasons of L&O: SVU. Audiences will gobble up endless lurid brutalities so long as they’re committed in a moral universe that eventually comforts them. Bill Paxton’s directorial debut Frailty, happens in no such place, and upsets pieties in a way that vastly more gruesome material never does. It’s a genuinely disturbing experience, all the more so for being packaged as just another religious horror exercise.
It might have fared better commercially if it was. Its lackluster performance was blamed on being initially slated for release in September 2001, but this movie was never going to catch fire. It landed in theaters in April of 2002 with respectable reviews, and precious little business. Over the years it developed a reputation as a sleeper gem, and when Bill Paxton passed away in 2017, many noted at how assured his debut was. He’d only direct one other movie, a historical golf drama, The Greatest Game Ever Played, that came and went without raves or raspberries. Before his death, Paxton was actually gearing up for a sequel to Frailty with the same screenwriter, but time simply ran out, and there wasn’t much of an audience for the first.
That’s because Frailty has less in common with religious horror like The Exorcist and The Omen than with the Southern Gothic literary tradition, as its closer in spirit to early Cormac McCarthy. Those 70s blockbusters tapped into a culture’s anxieties that as it became more secular, the Devil might prove to be real after all. But Paxton turned his attention to the actual implications of fundamentalist Christianity, which he proved able to explore with care and craft.
Paxton seems an unlikely fellow to come anywhere near this kind of material. He made his name as an actor playing macho buffoons, like Chet in Weird Science, or Private Hudson in Aliens, where he veered from swagger to a squeal in the same breath. These roles seemed like broad caricatures at the time, but now, with the White House staffed almost exclusively with Chets, they seem grounded with a reporter’s sense of detail. Paxton was playing real American men, just not the kind the country wants to admit to producing.
People are always surprised when actors who play villains turn out to be so nice, without ever realizing the best way to play a bully is to know how they operate. Bullies always lack that kind of self-awareness, and Paxton’s meatheads always featured a vulnerability that tempered their worst selves. Eventually Paxton graduated to blander roles in the likes of Twister or Apollo 13, all done reliably, leading him to be frequently confused with Bill Pullman, another actor who’s far weirder and more interesting out of Hollywood’s glare. But Paxton did his best work starring in two of the best noirs of the nineties, One False Move, and A Simple Plan, both using his persona as a sweet moron to hide what his character was capable of.
It takes an intelligence to do that, and that intelligence informs the choices in his first time behind the camera. As Paxton embarked on this effort, he used another long-time character actor’s directorial debut as a model: Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter. It’s a savvy comp with that classic movie’s concerns with warped religiosity, and its willingness to put its child leads in actual peril. But in the opening moments, Frailty seems unlikely to match Laughton’s masterpiece.
Dad: You didn’t think anyone knew about that, did you? But God saw you!
[Dad picks up his axe]
Dad: And you can’t escape God’s wrath!
Late one night, a sweaty and rattled Fenton Meeks (Matthew McConaughey) shows up at a Texas FBI office to convince an agent (Powers Booth) that his brother Adam is the notorious “Hand of God” serial killer. And off we go into Fenton’s tale of his childhood that would explain why Adam, who just killed himself, is responsible for all those murders. It’s the clunky set up of second tier paperback gore. Not to mention that framing devices are routinely awful, never quite as clever or necessary as the filmmakers think, but here the unreliable narrator is at the crux of this story, because this is very much about who to believe and why.
The movie settles into a groove as we explore Fenton’s childhood in small town Texas during the late seventies. Young Fenton (Matt O’Leary) raises his younger brother Adam (Jeremy Sumpter) as their mother died giving birth to Adam, and their dad, played by Paxton, works long hours at a local auto garage. Paxton and these child actors have a breathtaking chemistry, built off knowing glances and tiny gestures of affection and gentle prodding. But one night, their Dad has a vision that it’s the end of the world, and God wants him and his sons to kill demons in preparation for Judgement Day. The issue is that the demons look like ordinary people, and only Dad can see them for who they really are.
Fenton knows exactly how crazy this sounds and wants no part of it, while his younger brother has no such doubts. Adam’s young enough to still believe in angels and their hell-born counterparts. And with a mother-sized hole in this family, there are no other adults to contradict, or temper their father’s fantasies. Paxton’s performance here is one of his most quiet, calmly relating his vision with the certainty of someone explaining taxes. There’s no Piper Laurie puritanical rage here. He’s a regular Joe, a good neighbor, still smoking and drinking his few beers each night, never babbling in tongues or shouting, as he waits for his divine weapons to appear to him.
Those weapons turn out to be an axe, a pipe and… a pair of gloves. It seems that Paxton can see demons if he touches them, and since such visions are distracting, he needs gloves to carry the demons home to chop them up in the shed. The names of the “demons” come to him out of nowhere, which only makes Fenton more nervous that Dad’s off his rocker. It captures the horror of realizing that one’s parent isn’t sane, and how helpless it can be to deal with it. Call the cops? That ends a family already missing a mother. Argue? Not with a man so sure of his vision he doesn’t even need to raise his voice.
The script does a marvelous job of letting us see glimmers of his vision, never too much, just enough, and Paxton doesn’t play up the supernatural imagery. They are flickers, not scenes. Soon, Paxton brings home a middle-aged nurse who he promptly murders in front of his boys with that axe. Within days, Fenton and Adam are back to playgrounds and sleepovers. The movie’s been widely cheered for capturing how children actually process horrors, how they bury them quickly, because what they crave more than anything is a return to normalcy. But that return gets more difficult for Fenton, since his younger brother Adam never doubts their Dad, even enjoying watching the murders take place. Fenton is left alone with his fears, feeling more isolated as Adam and Dad grow closer. Paxton lets us feel the ache of Fenton sensing his father loves him less.
As the body count rises, Fenton actively tries to stop his Dad from killing again, until finally, his Dad locks him in their dirt cellar with no food until he finds God. It seems Dad had a vision that Fenton is a demon too, but that is a vision he refuses to accept. After a few days with only a few glasses of water, Fenton emerges telling his father what he wants to hear, and there’s palpable joy in his father, who now doesn’t need to kill his own child.
Yet, when it’s time for Fenton to kill one of the “demons” himself, he falters and turns the axe on his own father, ending that killing spree. This murder, like all the others here, is staged without stylistic splatter or gore, only a blank-faced glare, which is even more upsetting. These visions have destroyed this man and his sons, and spread misery to all those victims and families. That would be bad enough, but Paxton and his screenwriter Brent Hanley veer the plot into even darker terrain.
The FBI agent still doesn’t buy this story, so McConaughey offers to show him where they buried all the bodies in the nearby rose garden. And as they walk into the garden in the middle of the night, McConaughey reveals he’s actually Adam. His older brother Fenton was a demon, just like his Dad feared. His father was right. And at this point, we finally see what Paxton saw before he murdered those people. He saw them committing their crimes. One victim was a child molester, another was a murderer, and so on. They all had it coming, and even Fenton proves to be a serial killer, active until Adam finally kills him.
Then Adam reveals his reason for visiting Boothe at the FBI office that night. The Lord told Adam that the FBI agent was a demon and on touching him, sees that Boothe killed his mother, and now he’ll face the wrath of Lord’s avenging solider. McConaughey dispatches that FBI agent, ably framing his brother for it all, and proving that God looks after him, as security cameras got fuzzy during his visit to that FBI office. It’s a great little part of McConaughey to gnaw on, as he plays the scared and haunted sibling to the tee, only to emerge by the end in all his beefcake glory, now the sheriff of his childhood town.
Dad: Come in and close the door. Are you afraid?
Dad: Of what?
Young Fenton: You, you.
Dad: Only demons should fear me. You’re not a demon, are you? The angel said you were. I can’t believe that. I won’t. You’re my son, and I love you more than my own life. You know what’s funny about all this, Fenton? I’m afraid of you.
But Paxton doesn’t stage these revelations as some kind of triumph of good over evil. The visions might be true, but we experienced them through the eyes of a doubting child who only wanted his father to be sane and for those victims to live. This was carnage on the part of a deity that didn’t care if his judgement destroyed the lives of the faithful. McConaughey’s wife is pregnant in the closing scenes, implying that the apocalypse will be delayed and another generation will be shedding blood for the Almighty. A lesser filmmaker would play coy about whether Paxton and McConaughey are divinely inspired, but Paxton wants us to sit with what it means for God to be this cruel.
There is a terrible parent at the heart of this movie, but it’s not Paxton, who by all turns is tender and loving to his sons, even after the visions. The terrible parent is a God that would demand his creations shed blood in his name. It’s a Biblical koan, much like the story of Job, where we are left only with a demand for obedience, untethered to justice. It’s an Old Testament tale that argues fathers, both corporeal and eternal, know best, and in this case, that’s horrifying.
Some might argue that the story would be more emotionally satisfying if it was told through Paxton’s eyes, as he struggles to do the right thing in the face of his skeptical son. How are we supposed to feel about the fact that Dad was right all along? We certainly don’t feel vindicated. But that’s the point. This Biblical vengeance is revolting, and even if God is happy that the “trash has been taken out,” that’s hardly a comfort to anyone involved.
Americans love to sand down their religions to gentle proverbs, but the reality is the country’s most popular Christian traditions are animated by greed and bigotry, with charity being an extracurricular activity compared to their organized and relentless sex panic. Paxton offers no comfort in this portrait of fire and brimstone, even sapping the vigilante pleasures from the plot by having us watch that holy vengeance through the eyes of a child who simply doesn’t want their dad to be a killer.
Frailty takes a fundamentalist vision seriously and renders it as it’s experienced, rather than how some Church wants to sell it. It’s the terror of a fickle God, who is right, but unforgiving. It’s a terror that informs so much of the modern world’s mania and violence and yet, rarely shows up on the big screen. But Paxton, the guy willing to play dunderheaded machismo for laughs, also proved willing to portray old time religion in all its cold-blooded malevolence. It’s a horror flick for the ages, for simply asking, what good are angels with this much blood on their hands?