In my lifetime, I have only had occasion to watch two movies through the gaps between my fingers, not counting the last three Pauley Shore films. Both “The Exorcist” and “Jaws” generated the unwilling response, perhaps because those two films managed to depict their fantasy world with such reality (okay, so the shark looks fake by today’s standards).

Now I can add “Frailty” to that list, a film so compulsively wicked in nature that I had no choice in shielding myself from the horror coming off the screen. Directed by and starring Bill Paxton (“Twister”), making a most assured debut behind the camera, “Frailty” is the kind of film that haunts you because it could be true.

Writer Brent Hanley, also making his debut, lays down the groundwork so efficiently and effectively that you have no recourse but to be swept up in his nightmare world that offers a chilling bond between a father and his sons. In a world torn by religious strife, “Frailty” examines what happens when one man takes his beliefs to the extreme, forcing his beloved and devoted sons to make a difficult decision.

Is dad nuts, or did God really reach out to him and tell him to rid the world of demons disguised as humans? Sounds far fetched, but as we have seen time and time again in the news, religious zeal can make people do strange, sometimes awful things. “Frailty” isn’t a condemnation of religion, just a small glimpse of what happens when people take it to the extreme.

When we first meet him, Bill Paxton’s dad is like any another hard-working single father trying to raise two young sons. He works as an auto mechanic, is extremely devoted to his boys. Since their mother died, oldest brother Fenton (Matthew O’Leary) has taken over the responsibility of looking out for his younger brother Adam (Jeremy Sumpter).

Fenton and Adam are inseparable, but all that changes when dad wakes up one morning and confesses to his sons that God came to him and told him the world is going to end soon. The good news is that they will all be together with their mother in heaven. The bad news is that God has also told him that demons are roaming the Earth, and it’s up to him to kill them. God even supplies dad with a list of the first seven demons, and clues where to find the weapons needed to slay them.

Fenton thinks dad is nuts, but Adam, who literally worships and believes everything his dad says, goes along for the dark ride. Fenton’s attempts to stop his father fail, forcing him to turn against God and his family in order to maintain his convictions. All of this is told to us, and FBI agent Wesley Doyle (Powers Boothe) by the adult Fenton (Matthew McConaughey), who has come forward to confess his family’s sins and seek solace.

The adult Fenton’s confession frames the actual story, which unfolds with such unrelenting suspense and tension that anyone without nails might want to invest in some of those press-on ones. “Frailty” is definitely a nail-biter, and not because it’s gratuitous or gross. There’s very little blood on the screen, and all of the murders, committed with an axe, are done out of the camera’s range.

What makes the film so frightening is the relationship between dad and Adam, who probably doesn’t know better. Even more chilling is that dad commits the murders in front of his boys, allowing them to see the anguished, terrified looks in the victim’s eyes. It’s powerful, creepy stuff that stays with you.

Not only does Paxton deliver as a director, his performance is also a triumph. Paxton really digs deep into the role, creating a man who may be a monster, but a monster who believes he’s doing the right thing. Paxton makes us squirm every time dad shows up with a list in his hand. As a director, Paxton creates plenty of mood and atmosphere, alternating between dark and light with finesse. Even a simple, sit-down dinner leaves us with the feeling that something horrible is going to happen.

Matthew O’Leary reminded me of a young River Phoenix, shading young Fenton with equal layers of respect and doubt. His desperation rings true, especially after dad begins to suspect his disbelief. You don’t just feel sorry for Fenton, you want to climb up on the screen and protect him. Jeremy Sumpter is equally skilled playing young Adam, whose innocence gets caught in a tug-of-war between Fenton and dad.

The confession McConaughey shares with Boothe is more than just a framing and storytelling device, it stands alone as part of a more sinister plot. McConaughey appears appropriately tortured, while Boothe effectively dispenses plot exposition without sounding like a check list.

There’s great care behind the camera as well. Bill Butler’s photography serves the story well, while Arnold Glassman’s editing eases us into the nightmare without pushing and shoving. Not for everyone, “Frailty” will please audiences looking for a smart, sharp, well-acted, directed and written thriller.


Madness takes its toll in chilling “Frailty”


Bill Paxton, Matthew McConaughey, Powers Boothe, Matt O’Leary, Jeremy Sumpter. Directed by Bill Paxton. Rated R. 100 Minutes.


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