Bill Paxton’s directorial debut is a well-crafted gothic thriller and one of the best films of the year.
He does double duty, also playing father to 12-year old Fenton (Matt O’Leary) and 8-year old Adam (Jeremy Sumpter) in late 70s Texas. From the get-go the dialogue between father and sons is off-kilter. We aren’t really how or why, we just know. It’s too idyllic and superficial. It’s only the beginning of this superb thriller.
We actually start in a contemporary time with a man who says his name is Fenton Meiks (played by Matthew McConaughey) at the FBI headquarters in Houston. It’s a late, rainy night and Fenton begins to spin a story to an agent on duty (Powers Boothe). It’s the story of the “God’s Hand” killer; a tale of murder at the hands of his dead brother. This agent also happened to be the investigator when the original killings took, including that of his own mother.
We flip back and forth as Fenton recalls the day his father had a vision; once from an engel ordering him to kill “demons” for God. Demons that walk the Earth in the form of humans. All the Screams and I Know What You Dids are go for broke gorefests that aren’t about real terror and real horror. What if the one person you trusted and loved you the most told you to kill or be killed? The kids are terrified and when Dad brings home his first victim, he makes the kids watch. And it is here that Paxton has a true understanding of terror in all of its complexities. He doesn’t show Dad killing, he shows the kids witnessing it. You always think you’re seeing more than you do. It makes for a far more disturbing and disquieting moment.
The pacing and the structure of this brilliant film is a course in rich, ominous mood and true fear that sets itself up for a dramatic third-act twist. But then it goes one step further. It avoids clichés at every turn and carries a pitch-perfect tone of seriousness that would otherwise reduce it to merely a darkly comic fable.
Movie Matches: The Shining, Eye of God, The Night of the Hunter
How to watch: Rent or buy on Amazon