`Frailty' gory but lifeless

April 12, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Frailty, thy name is ... Frailty. The directorial debut of Bill Paxton, who doubles as co-star in the role of a wholesome, God-fearing ax-murderer, is a blood thriller with a broken back.

Written by Brent Hanley, this piece of petit-Grande Guignol wants to be American Gothic poetry comparable to Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter. But it lacks the visual and verbal richness of that eccentric masterpiece or the clean satiric edge of that great cult thriller The Stepfather.

Frailty unfolds from the point of view of Paxton's grown son (Matthew McConaughey) as he tells an FBI agent (Powers Boothe) his younger brother is behind the "God's Hand" murders and that his late father raised them both to be serial killers. As McConaughey goes into his small-town South Texas flashbacks (circa 1979), he says his mother died giving birth to his sibling. But brothers and Dad get along just fine and Waltons-like -- every line is like "Don't let the bed-bugs bite!" -- until Dad receives the divine call to be a killer of demons. The demons may look like a blowsy lady or an ineffectual old guy or a hard-bitten biker, but they have the souls of the damned. And it's incumbent on this good father to make their elimination his family's spiritual business.

At first, the movie's clean, four-square style -- a sort of Shaker moviemaking, down to the minimal special effects -- makes you hope Paxton has more to pull out of his hat than a series of bloody rabbits. The buildup to the first killing has an unsettling deadpan, whether Paxton sees heavenly light in an old sports trophy or unveils the magical weapons his Almighty has bequeathed to him, which to our eyes are simply work gloves, a lead pipe and an ax.

But the movie goes downhill with the whooshing sounds that announce, when he touches his first victim with his magic gloves, that Dad has bagged himself an evil spirit. The film becomes a wearyingly clinical chronicle of stalking and murder on one hand, and child manipulation and abuse on the other.

Despite the weirdly loving use of old horror-film tropes, like a community rose garden turned burial ground, and the occasional clever stroke, like having the younger son take to the demon-killing idea so easily he cooks up a to-do list of his own (to his father's disapproval), Paxton isn't yet the dark comedian Joseph Ruben was in The Stepfather, or the artist Laughton was in Night of the Hunter.

Too much of Frailty is simply double torture: We witness the agonies of the dead-to-be, and the dread, revulsion and hopelessness of the older son, without any payoff in psychological revelation (at the high end) or pleasurable suspense (at the low).

What's worse, the final act pushes the whole picture into the realm of first-person sociopathy -- like Jim Thompson's pulp classic The Killer Inside Me but without the skin-crawling intimacy. The script curses Frailty with that bane of contemporary suspense films: a double somersault of a trick ending that leaves the body of the movie writhing on the floor.

Frailty

Starring Matthew McConaughey, Bill Paxton, Powers Boothe

Directed by Bill Paxton

Rated R

Released by Lions Gate Films

Running time 100 minutes

SCORE * *

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