It is possible to admire Frailty, directed by Texas-born actor Bill Paxton, without actually liking it. It's not, strictly speaking, a gratifying movie: Too dependent on twists, both excruciatingly obvious and irritatingly ludicrous, it never fully satisfies; what you can't guess you won't see coming, because it's too outrageous to even fathom. Indeed, the movie's finale almost completely betrays what has preceded it, to the point where it becomes laughable and impenetrable; it makes a hero out of a villain, or is that vice versa? As you leave the theater, you may not even care, which is why it's hard to embrace Frailty, in which Paxton plays a single father of two boys who believes himself to be God's avenging angel sent to massacre "demons." Like so many other allegedly scary movies, it gets so tangled up in the twist that it chokes the energy right out of the very audience it seeks to frighten.
Still, it's a freaky bit of work from Paxton, heretofore known as an actor either buried in the background of films good (Aliens), bad (Mighty Joe Young) and otherwise (Tombstone) or only allowed to star in small films with relatively tiny budgets (One False Move, A Simple Plan). For too long, he's been the go-to guy when Dennis Quaid or Kevin Costner isn't available -- the gruff, affable, occasionally insipid leading man asked to make gold from copper. No wonder he decided to star in as well as direct Frailty: He hasn't been given a role this forceful since 1987's postmodern vampire laugher Near Dark, in which he played a different breed of killer (the undead kind).
Here, he manages to locate the humanity in a troubled man who thinks himself not a killer of mere mortals but a soldier of God enlisted in the "final battle" against unleashed demons, who happen to be ordinary people living in and around the small Texas town of Thurman. When he wakes up his two young sons, Fenton (Matthew O'Leary) and Adam (Jeremy Sumpter), in the middle of the night to tell them of how God came to him in his sleep -- the Lord communicates, incidentally, through old trophies, which should offer small comfort to the nonathletic -- he's as frightened as they are. He's the true believer who initially doesn't want to believe, and Paxton invests him with enough pragmatism and compassion to keep us from judging him at first; perhaps God did speak to him. It's something we're forced to consider again and again: As he's fixing a car, its underside slowly and beautifully morphs into a cathedral, complete with a flying angel delivering a list of demons' names. It's tricky business, allowing us to see what he does -- it skews our perspective, making us question whether he's truly touched or merely insane -- but Paxton the director serves Paxton the actor well.
The film, written by Dallas-born Brent Hanley, begins as the grown-up Fenton (Paxton's U-571 shipmate Matthew McConaughey) is confessing his father's sins to Dallas FBI agent Wesley Doyle, played by Powers Boothe. (Boothe and McConaughey are also native Texans; if nothing else, Frailty feels authentic.) Doyle, his office wallpapered with crime-scene photos, has been hunting the so-called God's Hands Killer, and he's reluctant to believe Fenton; it's a too-easy answer to a long-standing dilemma. From there, the story flashes back and forth between Fenton's family past and the present, as Doyle and Fenton drive to Thurman to discover the truth allegedly buried in a rose garden near the old family home.
As the older Fenton tells it -- and the story's delivered from his perspective, leaving us to wonder how much we should trust a kid raised by a mass murderer who believed himself God's right-hand, ax-swingin' man -- everything was cool at home till the day God came. Dad (Paxton's character has no other name) was a blue-collar pop; the boys' mother died giving birth to Adam. But soon enough, their backyard shed becomes a temple of massacre: Dad brings home his prey, lays hands on them to reveal their wickedness, then chops their heads off in front of the boys. Adam's into it; he believes -- though, at one point, he brings home his own list of bullies to murder. "You can't just make up stuff like that," Dad scolds, and it's a rare moment of humor in an otherwise claustrophobic, grim film. Fenton thinks his dad's merely nuts, so much so his father punishes him for his lack of faith by forcing him to dig a cellar in which he'll be imprisoned till God gives him a vision as well. (And God told Abraham, and so forth ...)
Frailty is full of small, subtle creepy moments; bereft of blood, the film hints at but never reveals the actual murders until near its end. But the individual moments never add up to the bigger shock, because the ultimate revelation -- the horrible truth revealed, not merely about Adam and Fenton but Doyle as well -- is so inexplicable that we're less creeped out than we are merely annoyed. Paxton has said Lions Gate held the film from release because its themes of religious extremism might resonate too loudly in the wake of Sept. 11. That's hogwash, of course; no one would confuse Dad with a member of the Taliban. But that's how you sell movies these days, by investing them with meaning that ain't even there.