Based on H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger's bestselling book of the same name Friday Night Lights tells the true story of the dusty West Texas town of Odessa where nothing much happens until September rolls around. That's when the town's 20 000 or so denizens pour into Ratliff Stadium the country's biggest high school football field every Friday night to watch the Permian Panthers Odessa's "boys in black " take to the field. All the town's hope and dreams are pinned on the padded shoulders of these young gridiron heroes--including insecure quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black); cocky self-assured running back Boobie Miles (Derek Luke); headstrong self-destructive tailback Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund) who must contend with an overbearing abusive dad (Tim McGraw--yes that Tim McGraw the country singer); and the team's spiritual leader middle linebacker Ivory Christian (newcomer Lee Jackson). The Panthers begin their season with one thing on their minds--winning their fifth straight championship for the first time in the team's 30-year history--but for their coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) it also means instilling a love and joy of the game in the boys' hearts amidst tremendous pressures and expectations. Easier said than done.
There isn't a false note in any of the performances and no one falls back on clichéd versions of their characters as is so easy to do in rah-rah sports movies. Thornton does a particularly good job as Gaines keeping you guessing whether he's going to be a hardass insensitive to his players' emotional needs (like so many movie football coaches before him) or if he truly means to coach his boys in a fair and decent way. Gaines too has to deal with his own pressures especially from the townsfolk who are likely to string him up if the team loses the championship. As for Gaines' players Black (the oh-so-serious kid from Thornton's Sling Blade) is all grown up and buffed out and still very serious. It works for the young actor though as the beleaguered Winchell struggles with the love-hate relationship he has with his chosen sport. Other standouts include Luke (Antwone Fisher) as the star player Boobie whose cocksureness leads him to an injury; Hedlund as the volatile Billingsley trying desperately to please his father; and McGraw making his film debut as the father a former Permian Panther champion who sure hasn't given up his competitive spirit basically beating it into his son. First Faith Hill (McGraw's real-life wife) in The Stepford Wives and now McGraw--who knew country singers could act?
From All the Right Moves to Varsity Blues to Remember the Titans Friday Night Lights unfortunately doesn't completely distinguish itself from the pack of football movies before it--like those this is all about how the young players--be they underdogs second-string nobodies or stars--rising above the mounting pressure and playing the best they can bless their hearts. Still there's no question the sports genre--particularly football--always gets the juices pumping with FNL being no exception. It might have something to do with our sick fascination with watching bone-crunching hits and body-punishing tackles. It's dangerous out there for these guys; no other sport (besides maybe hockey) can elicit such wince-inducing emotion and actor/director Peter Berg (The Rundown) exploits that. Obviously influenced by Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday Berg effectively paints his own gritty documentary-style picture of the competitive sport without relying on too many trite gushy over-the-top moments. And to give it credit the film does not necessarily have a feel-good "let's win one for the Gipper" ending; it is based on a true story after all and as we know real life isn't all sunshine and roses especially in the bloodthirsty world of Texas high school football.
FBI agent Wesley Doyle (Powers Boothe) is cold on the trail of Texas' notorious "God's Hand" serial killer until he's paid a mysterious call by solemn Fenton Meiks (Matthew McConaughey). It seems Meiks could bust the case wide open--he declares that "God's Hand"'s handiwork is that of his brother Adam and he's got a long and complicated tale to tell that'll explain it. Doyle's ears perk up and he and Meiks embark on a trip to the rose garden where Meiks claims Adam buried his victims and then killed himself. On the way Meiks reveals his gory story. It involves the boys' kindly father (Bill Paxton) who was a sensitive caring man--until he went insane one day claiming God had chosen him and his family to kill all the "demons" that inhabit Earth disguised as real people like their neighbors. Dad regularly makes a list and checks it twice for all the demon folk he needs to exterminate on any given Sunday but he's not on this holy mission alone--his sons are "God's hands" as well and together they must hunt down the demons and destroy them. In a weird variation on Cain and Abel 12-year-old Fenton rebels against Dad (killing others isn't exactly his idea of a fun after-school activity) while little brother Adam is happy to join in.
Because the movie is told mostly in flashback McConaughey is relegated mostly to voiceover and a few present-day scenes in which he acts frighteningly morose and gives the sense that there's more to his story than first meets the eye. Because most of the story takes place in 1979 the boys are the ones who really make this film work. Fenton the younger (Matthew O'Leary) is a real find--he clearly struggles with his love for his father whom he knows has gone over the edge and his repulsion for the deeds Dad is determined to have the family carry out. Wrestling with his own demons he finally is able to settle on a solution for how to stop the horror. Little Adam (Jeremy Sumpter) is quite good as the innocent youngster who adores his dad and hangs on his every word seeking only his approval and refusing to believe he has lost his mind. Paxton effectively bridges the transitions between gentle loving father and insane murderer insisting the boys finish all their veggies and revealing his next victim in one breath. He's like those killers on the news about whom people say "But…he was such a nice quiet guy." The performance almost verges on funny if it weren't so horrific.
Paxton makes an auspicious directing debut with this tight little movie keeping the action going and the plot flowing and letting you completely get to know the characters as they exist in their own eras. He deftly avoids choppy flashbacks and the potentially confusing story is perfectly clear yet no less gripping. The killing scenes are absolutely squirm-in-your-seat nightmarish but thankfully we don't see all the grisly details as with so many slasher flicks. Instead we're shown everything right up to the point of death and we're spared the splattering blood and guts. It's just enough to make you cringe and cover your eyes and ultimately far worse to imagine the outcome than to see it all in special effects and makeup. Frailty is also scarier than the typical slasher flick bloodfest--it's way more frightening to imagine the nice guy next door committing such crimes than a made-up character wearing a hockey mask or razors on his gloves. The movie also comes up with a startling twist that you don't see coming right away. But--without revealing too much--the movie falls apart at the end with some enormous problems. Sometimes directors try to explain too much; we won't so we'll just leave it at that.