Whether of the supernatural or merely twisted-human species, the modern horror film only leaves teeth marks when it bothers to chew over the textures of anxiety and suffering, and Bill Paxton’s debut, Frailty, bites down with filed incisors. It’s a small, unassuming movie grasping at whole-hog homo psychopathicus, with its feet planted squarely in Texan grave dirt and its head lost in the ether of Christian derangement. We’re first introduced to an obviously disturbed, stolen-ambulance-driving Matthew McConaughey, who appears late at night in the office of FBI detective Powers Boothe to solve a serial murder investigation. This framing device is executed with queasy tension, but the movie’s meat is McConaughey’s flashbacks to a motherless ’70s boyhood ruptured by homicidal righteousness. The conscientious, aw-shucks car mechanic Dad (Paxton) wakes his two young sons (Matthew O’Leary and Jeremy Sumpter) to some awful news: He’s been visited by an angel, assigned the task of demon killing, and the family’s project will hereafter be a secret mission to rid the earth of evil.
“Why’d God let me do it?” Davey and Goliath‘s whiny hero asks his father in a glimpse from the old Methodist children’s show; it becomes Frailty‘s implicit wail of despair. Once Dad returns home with his first harvest—a nurse, bound and readied for execution—O’Leary’s disbelieving 12-year-old is trapped in the ultimate down-home Hell, made to dig shallow burial pits after macaroni dinners. Paxton’s directorial approach parallels his acting—skin-deep but earnest enough to convince us, focusing on the kid’s-view details of butchering perfect strangers and letting the confined scope of the story rescue it from self-importance. (Occasionally, he latches onto an image that steals your reserve: an under-the-car angelic vision, one boy pouring water through a knothole in a shed-dungeon door to his imprisoned brother beneath, etc.) If Frailty isn’t quite the devastation it could’ve been (imagine the rigor of Lynne Ramsay or the Dardennes), it remains the most pungent American-Pentecostal mini-nightmare since 1996’s true-crime doc Paradise Lost.
Atsushi Funahashi’s Echoes gets just as intimate with Nowheresville, U.S.A., but in the service of a lonely, post-Jarmuschian road trip. Deliberately lifeless, smitten with depressive longueurs, shot in aggressively grainy black-and-white, this 16mm ultra-indie follows a grumpy, bleach-blond Village chick (Eden Roundtree) as she finagles a ride to Pennsylvania from two Italian immigrant friends, and then shanghais one of them (the relaxed and bemused Paolo Pagliacolo) for a detour to her estranged mother’s farm. Funahashi leaves the familiar melodramatic threads tangling; thankfully, the supporting characters have plenty of natural spark, and Funahashi’s visual mood-making is an object lesson in how to create a sense of intimate anomie with next to nothing.
As clumsy and overemphatic as a drunken frosh, Zoe Clarke-Williams’s New Best Friend (MGM, opens April 12) squanders its resources and obliterates credibility: University-town sheriff Taye Diggs is determined to investigate why comely co-ed Mia Kirshner OD’d her way into intensive care—that she might’ve simply done too much dope isn’t considered a likely scenario. Clarke-Williams is attempting a class-conflict dynamic, in which Kirshner’s working-class eager beaver falls in with some spoiled aristo-sluts and, after a single glass of vodka, becomes a bisexualized stripper-cum-scam artist. Clearly the product of an editing-room scramble, New Best Friend is a self-lambasting farce, despite Kirshner’s passionate college try at establishing a third dimension in a brain-dead movie flatland.