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FRAILTY (2001) Dir. Bill Paxton. Written by Brent Hanley. Starring: Bill Paxton, Matthew McConaughey, Powers Boothe, Matt O'Leary, Jeremy Sumpter, Luke Askew, and Levi Kreis.

There are demons among us.

As you might have noticed, or will very soon, we are big fans of Bill Paxton around here, but who isn't you say? Well, I don't know and I don't wanna know. As good as he was as a character actor, from Chet in Weird Science to Hudson in Aliens, Severin in Near Dark and beyond, I would argue he was just as good a director. Unfortunately, like Charles Laughton and Stephen King before him, Paxton only ever directed one feature film and that film is the unbelievably bleak and disturbing Fraility. The Meiks family is severely fucked up. Starting in the present day, Fenton Meiks (McConaughey) shows up at his local FBI headquarters and requests to speak specifically to Agent Wesley Doyle (Boothe) to declare his recently dead brother, Adam, the God's Hand killer. Claiming he knows where the victims are buried, Fenton leads Agent Doyle to the small town of the brother's childhood and during the trip relates the tale of their upbringing in flashbacks. Adam and Fenton are normal brothers to start with a single, hard-working father played by Paxton who one day, out of the blue, declares that angels are speaking to him and that they must kidnap and murder 'demons' as the angels instruct. Paxton has a strange method for this ghoulish endeavor; he waits for a list of names from the angels, scouts out the demon, kidnaps them, holds them in a root cellar he has forced Fenton to dig for doubting him, then lays his hands on them to see their crimes before axing them and burying them in the rose garden in the center of town. The film isn't gory, there is little blood, but with that setup, I hope you can imagine just how upsetting and disturbing this movie is. It's not torture-porn, and it's not a slasher film, it's a genre meditation on the nature of insanity and its effects on family. Not just a study of the father, but how he infects his children. Perhaps, if you're not a parent the film won't be as effective but as the father of a boy about the age of the brothers when I first saw this one, I was shaken. It's as grim as you can get, dealing with some very troubling scenes involving young children and while I can rarely find justification in horror films of this nature involving children, this is the rare exception. It's absolutely chilling and the bookends involving McConaughey and Boothe are equally chilling but far more genre-flavored. McConaughey gives us a hint of what he's capable of years before his turn in True Detective made everyone sit up and shake off decades of romantic comedies. Powers Boothe gives one of his last great performances before being relegated to TV and comic book movies, but it's Paxton who deserves the accolades here, pulling double duty as lead actor and director. It's more than a bit heartbreaking that he never got to direct his version of Joe R. Lansdale's The Bottoms that was long planned. That book, a slightly more modern and vulgar genre take on To Kill a Mockingbird would have no doubt benefitted from Paxton's unflinching eye to handle the racism and violence and his obvious patience with actors to imbue the characters with souls and avoid some of the more overly lascivious details of the book. We can only hope if the Bottoms is ever made it's given to someone with as much passion for the work as Paxton had and while we hold our breaths, we still have Fraility to sit in chilled awe of. 

 

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