The passing of actor Bill Paxton naturally led to a great deal of praise and reflection as the universally beloved actor was remembered across the media landscape. He may not have looked it but Paxton was 61 years old when he died of complications related to surgery. His youthfulness is something that many of his friends have talked about in tribute and his youthful energy was reflected by his work rate. At the time of his passing Paxton was working on the CBS television series “Training Day” and had one film in post-production, “The Circle,” and another that he was about to hit the promotional trail for and the reason for this writing, “Mean Dreams.”
In “Mean Dreams” Bill Paxton portrays a righteous bastard and invests him with the kind of menace that he doesn’t seem capable of from the remembrance of his friends. It’s high estimation of his talent that he was so incredible at making you afraid of him and yet he’s remembered for such incredible kindness and generosity in his everyday life.
“Mean Dreams” is the story of Jonas (Josh Wiggins) and Casey (Sophie Nelisse), teenagers who fall in love when Casey becomes Jonas’ neighbor, living just field of weeds away. The two meet in the forest and though Casey’s father Wayne (Paxton) isn’t very welcoming, the two begin spending time together and building the kind of short term romantic intensity only teenagers can create. The romantic montage is beautifully shot by cinematographer Steve Cosens and director Nathan Morlando. The montage does its job of establishing the relationship and moving us along to the thriller plot that is the film’s center.
Jonas and Casey’s budding romance is altered forever when Jonas witnesses Casey being beaten by her father and attempts to intervene. Later, Jonas once again tries to help Casey but finds himself trapped amid Wayne pulling off a drug deal and then a multiple murder. When he escapes this situation, Jonas decides to take the ill-gotten drug money from Wayne’s truck, gathers up Casey and her dog and goes on the run to escape from Wayne and his equally corrupt cop partner played by Colm Feore.
There is a very Terence Malick like vibe to “Mean Dreams” with “Badlands” unquestionably influential in the film. The very first scene of “Mean Dreams” shows Jonas seemingly wearing the uniform of Martin Sheen’s young bad boy from “Badlands” while crossing the dewy, overgrown Midwestern weeds that Malick made so beautiful. The look is the only similarity however, as the character of Jonas is certainly nothing like Sheen’s thoughtless murderer. Josh Wiggins gives Jonas toughness and vulnerability in equal measure with his determination and caring a bittersweet counterpoint to Bill Paxton's villainous Wayne.
Bill Paxton is terrifyingly real in “Mean Dreams.” Playing a drunken, corrupt, small town cop, Paxton is all seething menace underlined with a depth of sadness that only makes him more frighteningly unpredictable. The specter of Wayne hangs over the whole film, especially in scenes he is not in because his menace permeates the whole film and while he is frighteningly realistic it’s hard not to fear him popping up like a horror film villain. He’s portrayed as clever and resourceful on top of being a desperate bastard and Paxton infuses the character with chilling life.
In his second feature, following the 2011 Canadian crime flick “Citizen Gangster,” director Nathan Morlando acquits himself well. The look of the “Mean Dreams” is often quite lovely, with a touch of influence from “Badlands” and a little of the grayish grit of “The Road,” Morlando shows that he has a distinctive eye. If “Mean Dreams” is lacking in any way, it’s in the thin characterization of his female characters as either absent or present victims.
“Mean Dreams” is an intense sit with a quick pace and a good look. The film also ranks as one of the best performances in Bill Paxton’s long and varied career. I am not the one to offer Paxton a proper tribute as I have often taken issue with his performances, especially his most well-known turns for friend and director James Cameron. That said, I can say that his talent is well displayed in “Mean Dreams” where even as a supporting villain he carries the film with his menacing presence pushing the plot forward regardless of whether he’s onscreen or not.
This won’t go down as Paxton’s final performance but it is certainly a memorable one and one that is more than worthy of being part of a retrospective of the man’s career. Gone to soon at 61, you can celebrate Paxton’s work when “Mean Dreams” arrives on on-demand and download services on March 17th, 2017.