Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a bi-weekly column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles. In this entry, we examine Bill Paxton’s performance in Frailty.
When you hear the name Bill Paxton, three performances probably come to mind. First is the comic delivery of his character, Hudson, in James Cameron’s Aliens, his line “Game over, man! Game over!” becoming almost as iconic as the film itself. The second would be the blood-red grin of Severin, his wickedly jocular southern fried vampire in Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark.
The third performance, however, really depends on you. Maybe you love his leading roles in A Simple Plan, Tombstone, or Twister. Perhaps you’re a bigger stan for his bit parts, like his featured work in Weird Science or True Lies. With exactly 100 films to his name, there’s a wealth of performances that illustrate why Bill Paxton is one of Hollywood’s most beloved character actors.
But as much as I love the bombastic, goofy roles he played throughout the 1980s, for me, his work in the Southern Gothic horror film Frailty is the underrated Paxton performance that deserves renewed attention. It’s his most quietly moving and unnerving performance, encapsulating the intentionality and care he took in crafting fully realized characters.
Bill Paxton plays the nameless patriarch of the Meiks family. In the middle of the night, he wakes up his two sons, Fenton and Adam, to tell them that he’s received a prophecy from God: he must destroy demons who look and sound like ordinary people. With three tools he believes were given to him by God–a metal pipe, work gloves, and an ax named Otis–he enlists his sons to help him in his demon-slaying crusade. But as the Meiks are pulled further into a world of Biblical horror, Fenton begins to pull away, questioning whether his father has been visited by a heavenly presence or if the weight of being a widowed father in rural Texas has made his mind snap.
The thin line that Paxton treads in his performance that I find so impressive is how he never loses sight of the emotional core of his character as the horror slowly unfurls. Paxton plays Papa Meiks with a fine mix of stately stoicism and lived-in paternal warmth. From frame one, we can feel the unconditional love he has for his sons, which becomes the central throughline for his character, even after he starts burying demons in the rose garden behind their house.
That familial compassion is the first thing you’ll notice about Paxton’s character. After coming home from work in his first scene, Papa Meiks sits down with his sons at their dinner table, asking them questions about their school day. When his oldest, Fenton, admits he’s struggling at math, rather than castigating his son for not working hard enough, Paxton’s character finds a way to relate to him, “Well, I was never any good at math either…Tell you what, we’ll sit down this weekend, and we’ll see if we can’t figure that junk out together, ok?” Paxton’s Papa Meiks is purposefully showing us the level of consideration he has for raising his son with moral integrity, showing Fenton the humility and transparency every great man needs.
Even after he’s possessed by what God has asked of him, Paxton never divorces his character from the person he was prior to his heavenly visions, which keeps him from becoming a cliché of “evil horror dads.” This is accomplished, in part, by Paxton’s thorough commitment to never breaking from the earnestness of his character’s beliefs. In the hands of another actor, Papa Meiks may have been played with a growing blood lust as he becomes consumed by the power he feels as “God’s Hand.” But Paxton intentionally doesn’t relish the fact that he must destroy demons that look like people. There’s little excitement or eagerness in his voice as he tells Fenton and Adam what they must do. Just a mixture of confusion, fear, and an earnest belief that his actions as the hand of God are just.
This is perfectly encapsulated in a small moment after Fenton tries to convince Adam that their father is a murderer. As Fenton sits next to his father in their dining room, Paxton appears emotionless, giving off vibes no child wants to see on their parent’s faces. But as he turns to look at his son, that energy is instantly shattered in the profound sadness reflected in Paxton’s eyes. Almost holding back tears, he says quietly, “I want you to know I’ve never killed anything in my whole life.” As the scene progresses, the audience can tell Papa Meiks harbors a more sinister secret from Fenton. Still, in this moment, he’s simply crushed by the idea that anyone–especially his son–would believe that he is a heinous murderer.
Even though the audience sees Papa Meiks’ disturbing behavior through Fenton’s eyes, our hearts still bleed for the character. He may have monstrous orders from on high, but Paxton refuses to play him as a monster. There’s no self-awareness or actorly nod to the audience from Paxton that his character is secretly more evil than we could have anticipated. Instead, he plays Papa Meiks unwaveringly straight, allowing the story’s horror to come out of his character’s utter sincerity. It’s as genuinely realistic as it is quietly creepy.
As Christy Lemire wrote in her review for the AP News, “Paxton is at his scariest when he tries not to be scary. When he looks into the eyes of his frightened children and matter-of-factly tells them, “God has willed this, and we must obey God,” it’s far more harrowing than any wild-eyed, homicidal raving because he truly believes he’s doing the right thing.”
Not only is Frailty one of Bill Paxton’s most underrated performances, but it’s also his feature directorial debut. What you may not know about Paxton is that he wanted to direct before he became an actor. After being rejected from two of the top filmmaking programs in California, he produced shoe-string budget shorts with friends before finding work in the art department for B-movie impresario Roger Corman. He eventually directed music videos and a handful of short films, one of which aired on Saturday Night Live in 1980.
Even though Frailty wasn’t a runaway commercial success, critics received his debut feature well, with Roger Ebert calling it “an extraordinary work[…]On the basis of this film, Paxton is a gifted director.” His direction received numerous nominations from various critics circles and film festivals, notably the Saturn Awards, the National Board of Review, and the Chicago Film Critics Association.
He would direct one more film, The Greatest Game Ever Played, before his untimely death in 2017. We’ll never know what Paxton would have created next, but Frailty leaves us with a wonderful sense of the talent and artistry he had within him that went well beyond the power of his acting performances.
Bill Paxton is one of the most celebrated character actors the industry has ever seen. With his directorial and starring turn in Frailty, he showed us how many tricks he had up his sleeve to create a film performance that can warm our hearts and chill us to the bone.
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