Grade: A-

Actor Bill Paxton makes an auspicious directing debut with “Frailty,” a moody tale of religious mania and murder. It’s a small film with an obviously limited budget, but it’s been made with such craftsmanship and care that it’s a nearly perfect genre piece–the best example of its kind since 1999’s underappreciated “Stir of Echoes.”

Brent Hanley’s script has a good deal in common with Davis Grubb’s “The Night of the Hunter,” which Charles Laughton made into a masterful film with Robert Mitchum in 1955. That picture is about Harry Powell, a monstrous preacher who murders a widow whose husband had stolen (and hidden) a pile of money and then terrorizes her children to induce them to reveal its whereabouts. “Frailty” centers on a Texas dad (Paxton)–an ostensibly normal, down-to-earth guy–who becomes convinced that he’s been given a mission by God: to destroy demons going about on earth in human form. Soon he’s been provided with a list of those he’s to track down and kill, as well as some sacred instruments–an axe and some gloves–he’s to utilize. But the mission isn’t Dad’s alone; he enlists his sons, the serious Fenton (Matt O’Leary) and his rambunctious younger brother Adam (Jeremy Sumpter), in the enterprise. When Fenton resists, believing that his father has gone mad, Dad goes to extremes in turning the boy to his “duty.” The outcome is a gruesome family tragedy.

While “Frailty” shares many thematic elements with “Hunter,” however–even the ambiguity of Dad’s institutional beliefs mirrors Powell’s peculiar faith, which that character describes as “the religion the Almighty and me decided on betwixt us”–structurally it’s more akin to another brilliant small film, “The Usual Suspects.” Laughton’s picture, though stylistically expressionistic and dreamlike, was told in straightforwardly chronological terms. By contrast, Paxton’s has a naturalistic look–though individual sequences are visually atmospheric (and there are a few surrealistic moments), the settings are basically realistic–and it’s framed as a series of flashbacks, with a much older Fenton (Matthew McConaughey) explaining to Wesley Doyle (Powers Boothe), an incredulous FBI agent, why he believes that a recent series of killings are the work of his brother Adam by relating the tale of their father’s homicidal rage. Their cat-and-mouse conversation, with Doyle alternately convinced and doubtful, recalls that between Kevin Spacey’s Verbal Kint and Chazz Palminteri’s Agent Kujan in more ways than one. There’s the inevitable Hitchcock influence at work here, too: a slice of “Psycho” is apparent in an episode involving a dour sheriff (Luke Askew), who can’t help but remind you of Martin Balsam’s sad- faced Detective Arbogast. (One thing that the film doesn’t share with its predecessors is a penchant for perverse humor. With the exception of a few moments involving the young Adam, it remains grimly serious throughout.)

The nifty thing about “Frailty,” though, is that Hanley has given all these familiar elements a distinctive twist: the picture will remind you of those mentioned above (and of Joseph Rubin’s expert 1987 thriller, “The Stepfather,” as well), but it creates its own frightening world. Of course, if clumsily handled the story could have seemed utterly ludicrous. Paxton, however, controls the tone so beautifully, effortlessly mixing nostalgia and terror, that the picture is consistently gripping–even at the close, where twists come fast and furious (and, unhappily, not very convincingly). He’s helped immeasurably by the canny cinematography of Bill Butler, whose elegant compositions mingle normalcy and menace; by a darkly effective score by Brian Tyler; by taut editing from Arnold Glassman; and by a production design that does an impressive job of creating 1979 East Texas on California locations. Paxton has only himself to thank, though, for his own subtle performance as Dad. He endows the character with a wonderful matter-of-factness that contrasts perfectly with his occasional bursts of ferocity. Paxton also draws a stunning, understated turn from young O’Leary, who’s astonishingly convincing as the tormented young Fenton. (Though this was O’Leary’s first picture, it might be noted, his second, “Domestic Disturbance” with John Travolta, was released first. In that film he played a youngster threatened by a vicious stepfather. One begins to wonder whether the actor will ever enjoy a happy cinematic home life.) Sumpter, though he’s not called upon to show anywhere near the same range, is excellent as well. The dialogue scenes between McConaughey and Boothe are a bit less successful: they’re played at a pitch perhaps slightly too muted for full effect, and the shifts involving them toward the close are the weakest parts of the script. But McConaughey, in particular, shows impressive control.

One hesitates to praise “Frailty” too highly, because its spare, simple excellence may disappoint those who go expecting too much. But in its modest way it’s a great little movie–ingenious, lovingly crafted and genuinely creepy. It will stick in your memory long after overstuffed studio thrillers have been utterly forgotten, like a nightmare that’s hard to shake. In this genre, that makes all the difference.