Frailty is a terrifying low-budget thriller that packs a greater wallop than most of the high-priced studio scarefests. It never settles into being any single type of movie, and that's part of what makes it so disturbing: You may think you have it pegged as a psychological drama, but then it mutates into an apocalyptic horror film -- Stephen King plus the Old Testament, with some Freud and brothers Grimm thrown in. Bill Paxton, who makes his feature-directing debut and stars in the film, does a bang-up job of spooking us. It would be too bad if Frailty, which was written by Brent Hanley, was dismissed as a low-end fright flick, because its natural audience is precisely the crowd that disdains schlock scare tactics. Frailty works on your nervous system, all right, but it's also playing with your mind.
The film is set in East Texas, and most of it flashes back from a meeting between FBI agent Wesley Doyle (Powers Boothe), who is conducting the search for a serial killer known as God's Hand, and Fenton Meiks (Matthew McConaughey), who scuffles into Doyle's office and claims to know the killer's identity -- Fenton's brother, Adam. The story that Fenton unwinds for Doyle goes back to 1979, when 12-year-old Fenton (Matthew O'Leary) and 9-year-old Adam (Jeremy Sumpter) are living peacefully with their recently widowed father (Paxton) until one day he announces that an angel has provided him with a list of demons in their midst, which the family must seek out and kill. The father, who is given no name in the film, is righteously, almost beatifically matter-of-fact about his mission, and at first Fenton believes it's all just a bad dream that will go away. But when his father begins hauling cowering people into the shed at night, the full horror sinks in, and Fenton, with not even his younger brother as an ally, desperately attempts to get help. With his corn-fed, all-American looks, Bill Paxton is perfect here: He's creepier in the part than a beetle-browed mouth-frother could ever be.
On one level, Frailty is a harrowing study of an abused child trapped by a deranged parent; wariness, cunning, and flat-out fear commingle in Fenton's precocious, aghast face. But the film becomes cumulatively stranger as it goes along, and it has a lulu of a kicker. Everything comes together, it all makes a kind of sense, and yet the resolution does nothing to dispel a much deeper discomfort that stays with you long after the film's more blatant terrors have passed. What you take away is not the Grand Guignol pulpishness but, instead, the image of Fenton fighting off sleep in his classroom as he awaits the return home to his infinitely caring, infinitely mad father.
It's always good to see Morgan Freeman in a juicy role, even if, as in High Crimes, he's playing one of those alcoholic-lawyer-back-from-the-brink-to-save-the-day parts that practically define hokum. As Charlie Grimes, a former military lawyer who is enlisted by the high-powered-attorney wife (Ashley Judd) of a recently captured covert military operative and fugitive (Jim Caviezel), Freeman has a sly, bemused grace. He even has one genuinely powerful moment: In order to crack the case and not reveal his true identity, Grimes forces himself to drink liquor after a prolonged sobriety. Carl Franklin directs smoothly, but except for Freeman, the theatrics are pretty pro forma.
The Rookie, directed by John Lee Hancock, is a superior example of the kind of inspirational human-potential-movement corn that I suspect we're going to be seeing a lot more of in the movies. What saves it is Dennis Quaid, a fine and generally underrated actor who plays a real-life small-town Texas high-school science teacher and baseball coach who fulfills his dream of pitching in the big leagues. Moody, conflicted, he brings some much-needed shadows into the sun room.
FrailtyDirected by Bill Paxton; starring Bill Paxton and Matthew McConaughey.