A resoundingly old-fashioned and well crafted study of evil infecting an American family, “Frailty” moves from strength to strength on its deceptive narrative course. Though Brent Hanley’s script feels like it’s based on an account of white Anglo-Saxon serial killers run amok in middle America, it’s a genuine invention that has its cinematic roots in the rich soil plowed by such disparate works as Charles Laughton’s “Night of the Hunter” and Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” Pic’s dark-night-of-the-soul mood derives from the former, while the latter inspired the notion that the family that kills together stays together. Final effect is of a timeless work that could have been made at any point in the past 20 years. Indie pic’s commercial clout is greatly enhanced with stars Bill Paxton (who also directed) and Matthew McConaughey; while “Frailty” should do good theatrical biz, it will carry on an especially durable life in ancillary.
Pic is McConaughey’s most fully developed performance in several seasons; for Paxton, it adds to his growing gallery of nuanced, conflicted men from the heartland, while demonstrating that, in his feature helming debut, he already possesses the chops of a front-rank director.
After an intriguing title sequence coursing with headlines about an unsolved series of murders, pic begins in the offices of Dallas-based FBI agent Wesley Doyle (Powers Boothe), who’s with a man claiming to know the truth about the East Texas serial killing spree known as the “God’s Hand” murders. Calling himself Fenton Meiks (McConaughey), the man tells Doyle his brother, Adam, was behind the killings, and that he committed suicide the previous night.
Meiks tells his ghoulish family story, which pic divides into two large flashback sections of 26 and 41 minutes each, gracefully overlaid with Meiks’ v.o. narration. In 1979, Adam (Jeremy Sumpter) and his older brother Fenton (Matt O’Leary) are being raised by Dad (Paxton), a widower since Adam’s birth. They live an apparently peaceful, almost blissful existence in the small town of Thurman, living — in just the right Hitchcockian touch — in a nice little house tucked behind the town’s rose garden.
Paxton’s utterly unmannered, unobtrusive direction offers no hint of what’s to come, nor does his character, as Dad is the model of a gentle, loving father. Then Dad wakes the boys up in the middle of the night to tell them he’s had a vision: God wants the three of them to serve as warriors to wipe out demons on Earth during these, the days of “the final battle.”
Young Fenton, like the aud, is immediately thrown by Dad’s startling transformation. Unlike Jack Nicholson’s developing madness in “The Shining,” Paxton’s Dad remains calm and collected throughout, perturbed only by his eldest son’s resistance to what he views as a divine mission.
At the same time this psychological drama is turning the screws, “Frailty” builds up considerable tension as a murder thriller. While Paxton is careful to fix his camera away from the gore and on the faces of the family members as Dad’s “magic” axe falls on one chosen victim after another, watching the serial killing is deeply disturbing .
The clash between father and son reaches a turning point when, after young Fenton witnesses Dad killing the local sheriff (Luke Askew), he is imprisoned in the basement for weeks. Feigning madness and claiming to have seen God, Fenton eventually wins Dad’s trust, leading to some especially Gothic twists.
McConaughey reveals only as much about Meiks as he needs to, and never a moment too soon. It’s a poker-face performance supreme, both a portrait of a son’s tragedy and of a son absorbing his father’s legacy.
Paxton finds his match in O’Leary, delivering one of the most impressive child perfs of recent years. Indeed, there are large stretches of pic that are dominated by the young thesp, brimming with innocence, terror and unbridled anger at an incomprehensible fate.
Boothe suggests an FBI man who takes nothing for granted, and proves more perceptive than he realizes. Sumpter’s young Adam is a boy who simply wants his family to stay together.
Tech package reps an exceptional display of artistry, led above all by Bill Butler’s expressive lensing. In the daylight, Butler pushes for an effect that closely resembles “flashing” technique, producing a hazy, bleached quality that’s hypnotic. At night, a darkened storybook style takes over. Both visual palettes are richly supported by Nelson Coates’ and Kevin Cozen’s art direction (so-called in lieu of typical production design credit), while Brian Tyler’s music lurks in the background. Arnold Glassman’s editing keeps the flashback-flashforward story firmly on course.