To say that Bill Paxton’s sudden passing last month was a shock is an understatement. So many memorable roles from a talented and beloved actor are immediately brought to mind, as well as an understandable focus on what turned out to be his final work. Apart from his role in the TV series based on Training Day and the upcoming drama The Circle, Paxton was also in Nathan Morlando’s Mean Dreams, which made its North American premiere at last year’s TIFF, and recently hit theatres. Objectivity is sometimes difficult in a scenario like this, but it’s also no surprise that Paxton helps to elevate this adequate thriller.
Jonas Ford (Josh Wiggins) is a northern farm boy who falls for Casey Caraway (Sophie Nelisse), his new neighbour at a nearby farm, and daughter to the new local police officer, Wayne (Bill Paxton). Jonas and Casey immediately strike up a relationship, which causes Jonas to shirk his duties around the farm and annoy his father, Elbert (Joe Cobden). Likewise, Wayne isn’t keen on having his daughter around a farmboy like Jonas. Things take a more serious turn when Jonas discovers Wayne’s shady criminal gains, and together with Casey, runs off with the money. Unfortunately, they don’t realize just how far Wayne is willing to go to get back what’s his.
At the risk of sounding like I’m exaggerating, the standout for the film is obviously Paxton’s performance. Taking a character that could’ve been a one-note antagonist and fleshing them out to the point that the character is given far more life than what’s expected has always been Paxton’s speciality (insert reference to Predator 2 here). Of course, there’s more to Wayne than being a crooked cop. The scene where Casey makes her dad breakfast shows a tender side of Paxton’s character that cares about his daughter. In contrast, it also makes the character’s darker side that much more intimidating and frightening. When confronting Casey over Jonas, Paxton never yells, but instead speaks quietly with a sternness that quickly gets uncomfortable. Of course, this gets turned up later, but it’s this range that rightly shines on why Paxton was so good at what he did. As for our protagonists, Wiggins and Nelisse do capture the idea of young love burgeoning under oppression. Despite the concept being trite, both actors do make an effort to create a sense of genuine affection between their characters.
Behind the camera, Morlando showcases the beautiful Northern Ontario landscape (thanks in part to cinematographer Steve Cosens). While it’s not as northern as what I’d consider “northern” (the film was shot around Sault Ste. Marie, and I’m originally from Thunder Bay), Morlando still shows off the beauty and remoteness of the area (which is meant to be somewhere in the US). It also gives the film a feeling of higher production values than what you’d normally expect from a small Canadian-based production like this.
Disappointingly, however, is what I touched on regarding the “oppressed young love” story. We’ve all seen this concept done before, and in Mean Dreams, there aren’t any surprises to change things up. The first act is the setup of our main characters being introduced and meeting because the story demands it (Casey and Jonas are the only teens in the area), and the second act is your typical “lovers on the run” story, with the same shots of our protagonists hiking their way to a better life. Along the way, they share the occasional intimate moment, flesh out their backstories, and evading the villain and his cohorts. The film plays out as you’d expect with the appropriate conclusion, and again, no twists to add anything to make it stand out.
Apart from Bill Paxton’s excellent performance and Morlando’s skill behind the camera, Mean Dreams is just pedestrian. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad film by any means. Those who love Paxton’s work will enjoy his performance. And both Wiggins and Nelisse put forth a convincing effort that is believable for the film. But really, it’s just a one-off viewing that reminds you of why Paxton was (and still is) so beloved by fans for his energy and talent. For any other reason, and it’s a struggle to justify a repeat viewing.
Mean Dreams is now available on VOD.