Bill Paxton’s Frailty, man what a film. It’s like a particularly warped Twilight Zone episode with heaps of southern gothic, a few plot twists that will blindside you, enough subtle hints to keep you coming back for revisits and plenty of chilling horror elements. It’s nice that the late Paxton produced a now iconic cult classic as his director’s debut because it shows that he’s a cinematic renaissance man and had talent in multiple areas, he was something special. On a rainy Texas night, a mysterious man (Matthew
McConaughey) shows up at the FBI headquarters and informs a senior agent (Powers Boothe) he knows who the God’s Hand Killer was, a case that has long gone cold. This sparks an intense, eerie tale of his growing up in midland Texas, how his father (Paxton) seemingly lost his mind and dragged his two sons (Jeremy Sumpter and Matt O’ Leary as young McConaughey) into a delusional practice of kidnapping and murdering people that god has told him are demons. It’s harrowing, blood curdling stuff because the horror is treated so bluntly, without much melodrama or shtick. Paxton was indeed a loving father and he approaches the killing with such an earnest rationality it makes one’s skin crawl. That’s just the start of it though, and watching how the past ties in with the story McConaughey weaves is a deliciously dark pathway of unexpected secrets and uncomfortable revelation. People who rag on about McConaughey’s career pre circa 2012 obviously haven’t explored deep enough. Between stuff like A Time To Kill, Lone Star, Contact, Reign Of Fire, this one and others he had one legend of a career before he even arrived at milestones like Mud or True Detective, and rocks it here. Boothe, who sadly passed the same year as Paxton, was an actor with more than a few tricks up his sleeve and he’s wicked good as the shady agent who gets visibly shook up by the gruesome campfire yarn he has to sit through. Paxton is haunting in front of the camera, turning a loving father into a conflicted killer with burrowing complexity, and in the director’s chair he proves more than competent, making this a horror thriller for the ages with its constant surprises, sickening scares and uneasy atmosphere.
Films about con men can go a lot of ways. They can be intelligent with a worthwhile and earned payoff (2004’s Criminal), they can be hollow, nonsensical, all flourish and no gravity (2003’s Confidence) or deviate any which way from these examples. Traveller takes the quaint indie route, meaning I’m probably the sole person on the planet who has even heard of it, despite Marky Mark Whalberg appearing on one of the starring roles. It’s a shame because this is a bona fide gem, a low key little charmer with a roguish lead performance from Bill Paxton, a plot that gets cleverer the more you ruminate on it afterwards, and an easygoing style to it. Marky Mark plays Pat, a young man descended from Irish ‘travellers’, who are essentially gypsy hustlers and live as such in a sleepy North Carolina community. Pat wants to reconnect with his roots, but his kinfolk are a tribal bunch who don’t really fancy outsiders, however distantly related they may be. Cousin Bokky (Paxton) is the only one to take him under his wing, showing the ropes of a very specific, time honoured idiosyncratic lifestyle. Pat is young, cocky and sticks out like a sore thumb in Bokky’s world, who himself is weathered and moves about with ease and experience, slowed down by the dynamic which his young prodigy presents, and also looking for a way out of this life, and even romance with gorgeous Julianna Margulies. As light as these proceedings are, the film doesn’t fail to show the give dangers that being a con man puts them face to face with. It’s all fun and games until… well until it isn’t, and we get to see some of that ugliness rear it’s head, for without it there would be no stakes. Joining them is grizzled and now deceased character actor James Gammon, playing a salty veteran grifter who crosses their paths more than a few times, causing as much trouble in the process. I’ve not a clue how close to real life fact and tradition this film gets, but I imagine fairly on the nose, as it just has that notion that it knows what it’s doing, it’s researched, capable, and does it all with ease and enjoyment.
Vendetta is a tough film to watch without feeling sadness and outrage, but such is the stuff that HBO churns out, honest pieces of history that sting you with their refusal to honey coat or gloss over the nasty details (I’m looking at you, History Channel). This one takes place in 1890 New York City, a time of mass Irish and Italian immigration which spurred a ton of unrest among those already settled and raised in that area. Everyone is fighting tooth and nail for a piece of the pie and a chance to feed their families, and the ones with a bunch of pie just greedily want more. The influx of Italians is a cause for insidious worry for James Houston (Christopher Walken), an obscenely wealthy and deeply corrupt piece of shit. He’s joined by equally nasty William Parkinson (Luke Askew), and Mayor Joe Shakespeare (Kenneth Welsh), as the trio cook up an evil scheme to implicate a few young Italian men in the mysterious death of a sympathetic and kindly Irish police chief (Clancy Brown). This sets in motion a tragic outbreak of riots and and angry acts of violence against the Italians. Even their union representitive Joseph Macheca (Joaquim De Almeida) cannot bring peace or stop what Walken and team have started. You may think why make a film of this, as it heads straight for the bleakest of resolutions, but I think it’s important to shine a light on even the darkest patches of history, in order to understand the levels of deception and human cruelty so that we may see it coming before it’s too late next time around. This was a terrible, terrible event and the film hits you square in the face with it’s blunt truth and unwavering honesty. Kudos to HBO fpr taking it on. Watch for the late Edward Herrmann and Bruce Davison as rival lawyers in the chaos.