Bill Paxton’s ‘Frailty’ Delights and Terrifies by Blurring the Line Between Good & Evil [Video]

FRAILTY, Director Bill Paxton, 2002

Welcome to The Overlooked Motel, a place where under-seen and unappreciated films are given their moment in the spotlight. I hope you enjoy your stay here and find the accommodations to be suitable. Now, please take a seat and make yourself comfortable, I have some misbehaving guests to ‘correct’.   

This week’s selection is a tense horror thriller that blurs the lines between good and evil, forcing the viewer to confront some uncomfortable realizations. Frailty is the late Bill Paxton’s feature-length directorial debut and also features one of the iconic actor’s most nuanced performances. Sadly, it didn’t make much of a dent at the box office upon its 2001 theatrical release and has yet to really receive its due outside of its cult fanbase. 

Watch the latest episode here:

The proceedings open with Fenton Meiks (Matthew McConaughey) showing up at an FBI field office claiming to know the identity of the God’s Hand Killer. Agent Doyle (Powers Boothe), the man in charge of the investigation, is initially unimpressed with the claims, assuming Fenton must be delusional. But as the story unfolds, Doyle can’t help but acknowledge there is a level of credibility to what he’s hearing. Fenton tells Doyle he’s convinced his brother, Adam, is the God’s Hand Killer. And he has made the decision to come forward because his brother recently took his own life. Fenton goes on to reveal that his dad (Paxton) believed he could see demons in human form and after their father’s passing, Adam became determined to carry on the patriarch’s legacy. 

Also See: Steven Spielberg’s Thriller ‘Duel’ is a Relentless, Pulse-Pounding Game of Cat and Mouse [The Overlooked Motel]

Some films take time establishing their characters, gradually building an intensity over the course of the picture. Frailty is not one of those. The proceedings here are steeped in an air of unease from the jump. In fact, even the opening credits roll out in ominous and foreboding fashion, setting the stage for the all-out horrors to come. And matters only grow more intense from there. The initial meeting between agent Doyle and Fenton is immediately tense and contentious, facilitating the air of unease that will ultimately prevail throughout the entire ordeal. 

Another contributing factor that adds to the film’s uneasiness is its tendency to blur the lines between the hero and villain of the piece. Even when all is revealed, one really must think carefully about who is good and who is evil. And that ambiguity makes the picture uncomfortable to watch and difficult to digest. But good art should make us think. And Frailty certainly gives us plenty to think about. The film makes us confront questions like: If a man commits murder to make the world a safer place and save lives, is he actually evil? That’s a nearly impossible question to answer. But it gives the viewer plenty to chew on. 

Bill Paxton’s performance as the patriarch of the Meiks clan also ups the tension quotient. He is so sure of his convictions. He acts without a shred of doubt. He doesn’t question what he’s been told. He believes we are governed by a higher power and believes he is being guided by that higher power. His unwavering faith is convincingly conveyed and quietly unsettling. 

Paxton’s direction also proves assured and effective, in spite of this being his first time at the helm. The actor/director proves quite adept at crafting atmosphere. He utilizes an eerie score by Brian Tyler to enhance the more harrowing sequences. Additionally, he often bucks conventional horror tropes and eschews the use of violent visuals, knowing that leaving the viewer to fill in the blanks is often far more effective than subjecting us to gruesome depictions of bloodshed.  

The extremes that the Meiks family patriarch goes to are terrifying. But they become even more so when stopping to consider that what transpires has actually happened in real life. For thousands of years, people have killed in the name of religion. So, while the acts of violence within the context of the film are fictitious, the idea of people taking lives in the name of their faith is a very real and very frightening reality. One need not look any further than The Inquisition or the mass genocide of Indigenous people in colonial times to see how harmful violence in the name of religion can be.  

See Also: ‘The Midnight Meat Train’ is a Brutal Descent into Darkness [The Overlooked Motel]

The key distinction here is that the character does seem to have a higher power on his side. Whereas, any real-life examples of faith-based violence are easy to debunk as anything but divinely ordained. 

All in all, Frailty is a complex and layered affair that leaves it up to the audience to decide who the heroes and villains of the piece really are. Thanks to a standout performance and first-rate direction from Paxton, Frailty manages to be chilling, unsettling, and thought-provoking. If you haven’t yet experienced this jarring effort for yourself, you can find the flick available on physical media, or as a digital rental. 

That’s all for this installment of The Overlooked Motel. If you want to chat more about under-seen and underrated films, feel free to hit me up with your thoughts on Twitter @FunWithHorror



Sign up for The Harbinger a Dread Central Newsletter