Bill Paxton, in Austin to receive a 2011 Texas Medal of Arts Award, has obviously never been to the world famous
Alamo Drafthouse, where drinking from an excellent selection of wine and beer during your movie is not only allowed, but encouraged. Grinning – and definitely a little tipsy from the party in his honor that he’s stepped away from – he calls for a beer of his own as he takes his seat for the Q&A.
It’s February 28th, and we had just finished watching a pristine 35mm print of “Frailty,” a 2002 horror film directed by and starring Paxton that has all but strayed into obscurity. Paxton, whom the geeks will remember as the loudmouthed Private Hudson in “Aliens” and who everyone else will recognize as the star of HBO’s hit series “Big Love,” plays a small town average joe, struggling to raise two young sons after the death of his wife. One day, he claims to have received a message from God, informing him that he and his family have been selected to hunt down and destroy demons who have taken on human form and are living amongst us.
Soon enough, he finds an axe, digs a cellar, obtains a windowless van with a sliding door (a trademark of all half decent serial killers) and gets to work hacking up the people “God” tells him to kill, taking his sons along for the ride. And then things get weird.
On the surface, this role fits Paxton like a glove. A likable, earnest family man with Texas charm oozing out of every pore in his body is a role he can play in his sleep. Of course, this character type – a man becoming convinced that he’s been chosen by God to “destroy” a bunch of seemingly innocent men and women – is something you don’t see every day, yet Paxton finds the perfect balance, allowing us to keep our sympathies for this increasingly unstable man while being a terrifying and complex horror villain.
But villain feels like the wrong word. There is no mustache twirling going on here; Paxton plays the role honestly, with a simple straightforwardness that is equally endearing and creepy. As far as he’s concerned, he’s the good guy here. This complexity carries over to Paxton’s direction, where he eschews violence in favor of suspense and questions of morality. Where the film ultimately goes is something any movie lover should find out for himself, but Paxton admirably plays in shades of gray, leading to a stellar climax and a handful of left turn revelations that change the way the film can be watched on future viewings.
To call Bill Paxton charming in person would be an understatement. An honest storyteller with the unique ability to spin a horrible audience question into solid gold, Bill (because I get the feeling he’d be okay with me calling him Bill) answered audience queries for nearly forty five minutes, telling tales from the production (he loved directing himself because it meant not having to talk to another director) as well as dropping nuggets of fascinating trivia for the horror aficionados in the crowd (he was attached to direct Sam Raimi’s “Drag Me to Hell” at one point!).
Less successful was another member of the crew – who shall remain nameless – who joined Bill on stage and proceeded to talk in circles, derail questions, and drunkenly rambled about going on the “IMD boards” and reading kids’ comments about the film. He tried to poll the audience on four occasions as to their thoughts on the film’s final message even though it’s pretty clearly spelled out in the denouement. A more gracious producer (and that’s the only hint you’ll be getting!) would have let the man the audience came to see speak and quietly taken a step into the background.
“Frailty” isn’t a fun horror film. It’s tough stuff that demands your attention and patience, so judging an audience reaction based on the film alone would be tough. However, the sheer number of hands going up at the Q&A, more than at any other I’ve ever attended, say everything that needs to be said:
1. “Frailty” is an undiscovered gem with the ability to rivet any audience.
2. For a characters actor without a lot of star power, people really love Bill Paxton. And rightfully so.