You might not be correct, but you could make a legitimate argument that a full-length feature film thriller is the most difficult thing in Hollywood to pull off. While comedy will always be the most difficult genre to make, most of the time a truly unfunny script will never see the screen. On the other hand, Hollywood seems to pump out an overblown, unoriginal thriller at least once a month. Recently I've seen two that buck tradition and beat the odds.
Session 9 and Frailty both walk that fine line between thriller and horror, and for me, that's a good thing. Relatively small films without the A list cast, both helmed by directors not experienced in this genre, and both outrageously well crafted, Session 9 and Frailty chill, thrill, and remind one of how much fun not knowing what's coming next can be.
Session 9 comes from the same general vein of film making that gave us The Blair Witch Project, that is, it's a movie that allows you to scare yourself instead of going to the trouble of trying to scare you. Director Brad Anderson, better known for independent comedies like Next Stop Wonderland, and Happy Accidents, hits pitch perfect note after note. Unlike most thrillers, the characters and story really matter here. Gordon (Peter Mullan) runs an asbestos disposal service and wins a large contract to clean up an abandoned insane asylum. Other than a tighter than usual schedule this job should be like any other but, the personal problems of his crew start tensions rising even before Mike (Steven Gevedon) finds the confidential audio tapes of a schizophrenic patient that seem to unleash a dark force.
Anderson's greatest feat is his pacing. A slow burn of a movie that gradually raises the temperature from simmer to slow boil to absolute pyrotechnics, Anderson makes it easy to simply fall into the film and lose yourself right along with the characters. This is by far the film?s greatest achievement, and the performances, mannered and raw as they are, deserve much of the credit. David Caruso (late of NYPD Blue) and Josh Lucas (suddenly hot after You Can Count On Me, Sweet Home Alabama, and The Hulk) are the biggest names and carry much of the load, but the film doesn't work without the subtle work of Steven Gevedon as Mike. A law school dropout unhappy with himself and his work, Mike's reaction to the tapes, a mix of curiosity and shock mirrors the audience's reaction, and gives us an opening to walk into the film and follow the characters around.
Likewise Frailty follows a small and effective cast into possibly supernatural territory, and in the same manner as Session 9 it's a movie where the tension builds like a classical music piece into a violent and very satisfying crescendo. While Session 9 follows a family of co-workers into an insane asylum, Frailty tells the story of an actual family, headed by a father (Bill Paxton, also making his directorial debut) who believes he's been chosen by God to destroy demons masquerading as people on earth. Not surprisingly, his two sons Adam and Fenton (brilliantly played by newcomers Matthew O?Leary and Jerry Sumpter) have differing reactions to their father's new habit of bringing home strangers and killing them in the shed. This one is likely to inspire some healthy conversation on the new Religion and Philosophy forum on Crash the Boards.
The story is structured as a series of flashbacks told by Matthew McConaughy to FBI agent Wesley Doyle (the underrated Powers Boothe). The fact that these crimes have already happened, some 20 years before, but seem to relate to a new series of killings, brings a relevance and immediacy to the flashbacks that balances very nicely the even pacing of the film. Paxton made an excellent script choice for his first film behind the camera, as Frailty always feels fully formed, moving along with purpose and urgency.
Both Session 9 and Frailty will the audience into situations nearly as uncomfortable as the ones the characters are in. And that's the trick with a good thriller. The audience must care about the characters enough to be thrilled by what is happening. If the viewers are able to divorce themselves from the action on screen, a filmmaker's only option is someone jumping out of a closet or mysterious shadows on the screen. We've seen that too many times, and here both films keep us caring and watching so that directors Anderson and Paxton can avoid the cheap thrills that sink so many other films in this genre. Both films reveal major plot twists late in the movie, but because they've been so honest the rest of the time we not only forgive, but also revel in these plot twists, loving the creativity and nodding our heads at the seemingly obvious answers we're given. Neither Session 9 nor Frailty cheats, because neither film needs to.