We need to talk about Bill Paxton.
He was a regular fixture of 1980s and 1990s cinema, more often than not playing a supporting role, more often than not in some genre-based action film or sci-fi thriller. He was widely liked, but rarely acclaimed. There is a strong argument to be made that audiences and critics simply took him for granted: he was ‘that guy’ from Aliens first, the star of Twister second, and then just a fondly remembered face from the likes of Titanic, Predator 2, The Terminator, and True Lies. Paxton died in 2017, aged 61, and was mourned and missed. And, as always, widely liked.
It is easy for an actor to be critically overlooked when they work in commercial film. Paxton never really did anything too flashy, and never drew too much attention to himself. Every film he appeared in, however, was improved by his presence. His very best work came in 2001 with Frailty: a film in which he delivered his finest performance, and also one of only two films that he personally directed (the other, The Greatest Game Ever Played, was released in 2005).
Frailty begins with a man named Fenton Meiks (Matthew McCounaghey) arriving one night at an FBI field office with news on the “God’s Hand” serial killer. He claims it is his brother Adam, and his explanation takes the film back to Meiks’ childhood, when he and Adam’s father (Paxton) becomes convinced God has given him a holy task to destroy demons – each of which is disguised as a human being.
There is a very pulpy air to Frailty, whose flashback-based narrative gives it a rather noir-esque and old-fashioned style. The bulk of the film is set within the flashbacks, with the younger brother Adam falling completely into his father’s delusions while a more doubtful Fenton grows to realise his father is brutally murdering innocent people. There is a dual struggle going on, as Fenton struggles to rescue his brother as well as to convince his father than his religious visions are entirely imagined. Brent Hanley’s screenplay is hugely effective in humanising this battle, and manages to give Fenton’s father – he is never named – a surprisingly sympathetic profile. The film also benefits from a strong amount of atmosphere: bleak lighting, camera work, and music (from Brian Tyler) all combining to give a deeply threatening tone to proceedings.
Juvenile performers Matt O’Leary and Jeremy Sumpter both do excellent work as the ultimately traumatised sons; it is deeply horrifying to watch an idealistic father force his children to accompany him on kidnappings and axe murders, and there’s a good realism to their acting in these scenes. Matthew McCounaghey is wonderfully haunted and wary as the elder Fenton, while Powers Boothe gives a very watchable supporting turn as FBI agent Wesley Doyle.
At the end of the day, however, this is Paxton’s film through and through. His Mr Meiks is deeply moral, religious, warm, and fatherly. He anguishes over the task he believes God has given him. He honestly believes he is doing a just and important thing, and Paxton giving the character such a strong sense of authenticity that makes him ever more tragic. Paxton’s next film was a supporting role in Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams (2002); he was a working actor, and by all accounts a very pleasant one with whom to work. What it means, however, is that he never really demonstrated how great an actor could be. He demonstrates it here. Frailty is an absolute gem.