When Bill Paxton passed away in 2017, his death came as a surprise to everyone. At 61, he seemed to be in perfect health, but he had a damaged aortic heart valve most of his life and on Feb. 14 of that year, he underwent open heart surgery and this led to complications that resulted in a fatal stroke on Feb. 25 the same weekend as the Oscars. He was briefly mentioned on air by Jennifer Aniston, but it was a shame Paxton never got nominated.
Paxton had appeared in Oscar darlings Apollo 13 and Titanic, but that came after about 15 years after Paxton was mostly a character actor, appearing in supporting roles in Aliens, Near Dark, Next of Kin and Weird Science. His Texas drawl, unfortunately, was probably what limited his roles but he was able to stand out in the roles he did land. Imagine someone else playing Private Hudson in Aliens and being able to pull it off. He later admitted he didn’t like having to swear so much in front of the young Carrie Henn.
That attitude is what made his best role as Dale “Hurricane” Dixon, a small Arkansas town police chief, in the brilliant crime thriller One False Move so memorable. Behind the bravado, there was just a simple man there. Paxton could play good guys, bad buys, obnoxious guys and even hopeless romantics.
Paxton only directed two movies, the first of which is Frailty, which has one of the best twists of all horror/thrillers of all time. And as my writer professor, the late Peter Christopher used to ask, “Does he earn it?” Yes, he did. Also, Christopher would tell people to go for the jugular. A movie like Frailty does just that.
Beginning in Texas in the early 2000s, Wesley Doyle (Powers Boothe), a top FBI official is visited one dark and stormy night by Fenton Meiks (Matthew McConaughey) who claims his brother, Adam, is the “God’s Hand Killer” they’ve been tracking. Fenton says Adam called him the previous night before shooting himself. The bodies are buried in a public rose garden in their hometown of Thurman.
Being cautious because Fenton drove a stolen ambulance, Doyle checks things out by making a few phone calls. Fenton begins telling Doyle about events in 1979, when they were growing up. Young Fenton (Matt O’Leary) and young Adam (Jerry Sumpter) were awoken one night by their father (Paxton) who claims he had a vision in the middle of the night. He said God spoke to him and said he was wanting to make him a servant to destroy the demons on Earth. While Adam is enthusiastic, Fenton is questioning it, thinking his father may have had a dream.
Later their father says he was driving to work and noticed some sun shining on a barn where he found a double-head axe and some work gloves. The father also says he was working underneath a gar when the Angel Gabriel appeared to him giving him the names of people hiding as demons on Earth.
Meiks abducts a blonde woman and brings her home with the boys to help him. He claims she’s a demon and when he touches her with his bare hands, he shudders claiming he can now see her true identity. Meiks kills the woman with the axe and the boys help her bury in the rose garden.
Doyle then asks Fenton to drive him to Thurman to check out the rose garden. Along the car ride, Fenton tells him more about a man his father thought was a demon and how they helped lure him so their father could abduct him. Tension arise between Fenton and his father. Adam believes what his father is saying and even claims he can see the visions. But Fenton seems to think that their father has lost his mind.
Paxton is quite believable as a man who can be Ward Cleaver one moment and Michael Myers the next. Paxton may have been 24 in 1979 but he definitely knows that things change slowly in Texas. When Fenton tries to get help from the local sheriff, it’s obvious the sheriff doesn’t believe him. It was a different era and there was a huge emphasis on the patriarchy. When Meiks makes Fenton dig in the backyard, he use the “I’m your father and you’ll do what I say” attitude. But he’s not abusive. That’s just the way dads were in Texas at the time and probably still are.
Both O’Leary and Sumpter make their roles convincing. One thing to note is Fenton is at that age in which boys begin to question their parents and rebel more while Adam is younger and seems to be willing to go along. And people look at Fenton as just rebelling. Fenton also doesn’t believe God is commanding his father. And despite being told to by his father, Fenton doesn’t pray.
But this isn’t a movie that focuses much on religion? Even though it’s Texas, Paxton and screenwriter Brent Hanley know to make this a family that if religious because that’s they way it was without going overboard. Also, they’re not saying anything bad about religion either. The script is loosely based on serial killer Joseph Kallinger who murdered three people and tortured four families in 1974-1975 with the help of his 13-year-old son, Michael. Kallinger tried to claim insanity saying that God has commanded him.
One scene in particular that works to show the division between father and son is when Meiks tells his sons about his vision, he’s sitting on the bed with Adam while Fenton is on the other bed looked concerned. Their mother died in childbirth with Adam and Fenton has been stuck in parentification, taking even more special care of his younger brother, something a lot of latchkey kids had to do during this era. This isn’t a very bloody movie and most of the terror comes from the performances of the actors and how much is a father willing to subject his kids to because he thinks he’s in the right.
As a director, Paxton doesn’t linger on things the way other filmmakers do by hinting something. This is the type of movie you have to watch a second or third time to catch things you may have missed because they didn’t seem relevant.
Frailty opened to praise from film critic Roger Ebert who gave it four stars. Stephen King praised it as well as James Cameron and Sam Raimi, who had both directed Paxton in movies. It’s a shame he never stayed behind the camera on more projects. He had a talent behind the camera.