Popular “everyman” actor Bill Paxton was on a roll in the 1990s. From Tombstone to Apollo 13, and Twister to Titanic, Paxton starred in some of the biggest movies of the decade. But he had long wanted to be a director and jumped at the chance to guide the gothic twists and turns of Frailty. Paxton also took on a starring role as a widower dragging his sons into a spiritual mission to destroy demons. The result was both impressive and unnerving. Here’s why we think you need to see Frailty, Bill Paxton’s overlooked and underrated horror movie.
For a film routinely classified as horror, it’s important to give some context to Frailty‘s 2001 release. Following the horror milestones of the 1970s, notably The Exorcist, The Omen, Carrie, and The Shining, the genre largely devolved in the 1980s into a series of never-ending sequels to slasher films. By the 1990s, popular horror films were few and far between, with only the parody Scream finding widespread success.
Frailty was part of a new generation of horror films that were purposefully less gory and more psychological. It could just as easily be called a thriller, though it is mostly low-key, as much a mystery as anything until the end. Yes, there are killings, but what viewers see (with one notable exception) is the reactions of others, not the victims. Blood is shown after the fact, on clothing and weapons, leaving audiences with the horror of contemplating the characters’ deadly choices. Perhaps most disturbing is the power that a father holds over his children and the abuse that can result from someone truly committed to a holy quest.
Because Frailty is so character-focused, its success depended heavily on the cast. Paxton is chilling as an unremarkable mechanic taking on an extraordinary assignment in a quiet small town. Joining him in a series of increasingly upsetting flashback scenes were two young actors, Matt O’Leary and Jeremy Sumpter, playing his sons. It was among their first projects, and having proven themselves, both have continued to work regularly, if quietly, in the two decades since.
The frame story is dominated by two popular actors, both Texans like Paxton. Powers Boothe was known for hard-boiled law enforcement and military roles, so it’s not unexpected to find him here as an FBI agent. Leading man Matthew McConaughey is not entirely a surprise, either, though he was about to enter a stage of his career known mostly for romantic comedies, including The Wedding Planner and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, so a horror appearance was (and remains) rare.
For a first-time director, Bill Paxton was able to attract unexpected top-tier talent to Frailty, and not just performers, but crew members as well. Case in point, Director of Photography Bill Butler. Butler was a legendary Oscar-nominated cinematographer, known for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Jaws. Almost 80 years old at the time of filming, he brought a wealth of experience and knowledge to the production.
While Texas has increasingly featured on film for the menace of its wide-open spaces and who (or what) they might contain, in Frailty, Butler and Paxton force us into confined locations for essentially the entire movie. From a small office and a tiny house to an old shed and its dirt cellar, plus the interior of a police car driving through the rain, those afraid of cramped spaces will be uncomfortable throughout. But these confined, often dark places add to the tension and remind us that the characters feel trapped, with seemingly no choice but to act as they do.
Audiences who saw Frailty when it opened in 2001 may have suspected a twist ending. It was a time when they had become very popular, especially in the wake of The Sixth Sense in 1999 and Memento in 2000. Though clearly a resurgence, this was nothing new. Classic examples date back to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in 1920 and Citizen Kane‘s “Rosebud” in 1941.
But even savvy viewers probably won’t expect the multiple twists revealed in the final act of Frailty. In fact, the ending is the most criticized aspect of the film. It continues a long tradition of an unreliable narrator, with roots in literature and theatre probably dating back to the dawn of storytelling. But would it have been more impactful, more horrific, even, if there had been at least one fewer revelation? You’ll have to decide for yourself, but you might have to watch more than once.
Bill Paxton died of a fatal stroke on February 25, 2017, following multiple heart surgeries. Though he had found success on television, he directed just one more film after Frailty, the somewhat less original (though still generally well-received) The Greatest Game Ever Played in 2005. That leaves Frailty to largely carry Paxton’s directorial legacy, and it holds up pretty well, especially for an inaugural effort. The movie continues to enjoy widely positive aggregate reviews from both critics and audiences. It was popular enough to get a Blu-ray release in 2009 and has since become available to stream as well.
Perhaps even more importantly, Frailty is an important part of the Southern Gothic revival in film. Falling out of favor after classics like A Streetcar Named Desire and The Night of the Hunter, Paxton helped paved the way for more recent entries like Winter’s Bone and the remake of The Beguiled, not to mention alumnus McConaughey’s turn in the series True Detective. Current horror king Jordan Peele, too, owes a lot to films like Frailty, as he is the latest to find success with films that are not only scary, but also smart and socially thoughtful.