What a difference a weekend makes. When I first got word last week of an upcoming new release called Mean Dreams, it was simply a promising-looking thriller; but when I finally sat down to watch it, I did so in the sad knowledge that I was about to see one of the very last performances from the late, great Bill Paxton, who left us far too soon this past Sunday.
It’s been touching to see how widespread the tributes to Paxton have been in recent days, considering he was never necessarily a major A-lister; I’ll admit, though, for some reason I found myself surprised that most obituaries mentioned his role in Titanic first. I don’t know why I should be surprised by that – it’s inevitable that the widest audience will know him for having a supporting role in what was once the number one box office hit of all time – but to me, and many more of us no doubt, Paxton was a genre icon through and through. Terminator, Aliens, Near Dark, Predator 2, True Lies, all the way up to Edge of Tomorrow; Paxton wasn’t the lead in any of them, but his beautifully judged blend of comedy and menace saw him steal the show every time (well okay, Gary Busey may have given him a run for his money in the batshit stakes on Predator 2). So iconic were these performances that it’s easy to overlook his more understated work like A Simple Plan, Frailty, or HBO’s Big Love, which proved there was a great deal more to him than gurning and wisecracking. This, happily, is also the case with Mean Dreams, which sees that good ol’ Paxton charm utilised to at times hugely sinister effect.
All that having been said, Mean Dreams isn’t really Paxton’s movie. The spotlight instead goes to two young actors, Sophie Nélisse and Josh Wiggins. Nélisse is Casey Caraway, a teenage newcomer in a sleepy mid-American rural community, brought there by the transfer of her cop father Wayne Caraway (Paxton, obviously). Bored, alone and somewhat distant, she strikes up a friendship with the only neighbour her own age, farmer’s son Jonas (Wiggins), and unsurprisingly feelings of young love are soon stirring. However, this is rather complicated by the overly possessive and abusive nature of Casey’s father, who quickly makes it very clear he doesn’t want Jonas anywhere near his daughter, with the threat of dire consequences if the boy does not comply. Blessed (or cursed) with both iron balls and a sense of nobility, Jonas endeavours to take Casey to safety – but in so doing, he discovers Wayne is not only a bad father, but also a dirty cop, who may be even more dangerous than they realised.
As the synopsis suggests, what we essentially have here is a contemporary take on a classic noir format, young lovers on the run, most familiar to us now from the likes of Badlands and True Romance. However, Mean Dreams seems more attuned to today’s YA sensibilities, in that, rather than dangerous, faintly unhealthy relationships presented in the aforementioned films, we here have a teen romance which is considerably sweeter, happier, and curiously chaste. These kids aren’t gleefully gunning down anyone in their way and leaving a trail of carnage and bodily fluids; they’re holding hands, gazing wistfully at one another, sharing their emotions. No doubt this may seem a bit sappy for some viewers, but the fact these kids are both clearly so gentle in nature serves to raise the stakes, as it’s abundantly clear they’re ill-equipped to deal with the challenge before them.
The key challenge is, of course, Paxton’s Wayne. In a way I find myself reminded of Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs; Paxton isn’t on screen as much as you might expect, yet his shadow hangs over everything that takes place, as in no short order his introductory scenes make it clear what an unscrupulous, unfeeling man he is, who will make good on his threats and then some. We see early on that he beats his daughter, and it’s strongly implied that he does worse to her besides, so naturally we’re compelled to hate him from the get-go. Wayne isn’t just some moustache-twirling pantomime villain, however; he’s that worst kind of bad guy, the one who seems to delude himself that he’s really okay underneath it all, his actions motivated (or at least justified) by some twisted notion of what it is to be a decent family man. It’s a great part, and Paxton conveys it beautifully, making Wayne every bit as compelling as he is despicable. And credit where it’s due, Colm Feore manages a similar feat in his smaller role as the Sheriff; an equally unsympathetic character in some respects, but with hints of well-meaning under the surface despite it all.
Alas, the only real problem with Mean Dreams – and I’d be saying this even if he hadn’t just died – is that for much of the last hour Paxton barely appears at all, and while Nélisse and Wiggins are without question fine young actors, the film just gets a bit lifeless in Paxton’s absence. The writing may be the key problem; after getting away a little too easily, the teens proceed to spend most of their time just walking across the country at their own pace, which quickly gets a bit repetitive and rather kills the tension of the first half hour. This is a shame, because in the early scenes Mean Dreams is genuinely quite suspenseful, but as the clock rolls on the film proves less interested in maintaining this than exploring the teen romance. It also doesn’t help that there are at least a few moments when the characters’ decisions make virtually no sense, notably a number of instances when they choose to remain on foot despite readily available vehicles.
Director Nathan Morlando hasn’t done much to date, but this should certainly mark him out as someone of considerable promise. With its barren rural landscapes and central theme of kids on the run from a dirty cop, I was reminded a little of Jon Watts’ Cop Car; and if that film was enough to land Watts the job of directing the upcoming Spider-Man: Homecoming, I see no reason Mean Dreams can’t elevate Morlando to similar heights, not to mention Sophie Nélisse and Josh Wiggins. As for Paxton… if IMDb can be trusted, he has one more big screen performance in the can in a movie called The Circle, but Mean Dreams would be as good a note as any for him to go out on. Even if he should have stayed with us at least another 25 years, goddamn it.
Mean Dreams is released in the US to theatres and VOD on 17th March, from Vertical Entertainment.