Get ready to be really disgusted by Bill Paxton. I mean, like, you really just want someone to put him in his place in Mean Dreams. That's kind of awkward because, sadly, it's also one of the late actor's final screen performances, so our natural inclination is to want to cheer for him. We want to like him, but oh...you won't. As the abusive Dad/corrupt cop of this Badlands-esque drama, it says a lot about Paxton's talent as an actor that he so easily makes us turn against our natural instincts.
Directed with Malick-ian subtlety and texture by sophomore director Nathan Morlando, Mean Dreams is a familiar, but still exciting tale of young love on the run. Shot in Ontario but set in rural America, the film stars The Book Thief's Sophie Nelisse as Casey Caraway, who just moved into town with her father, Wayne (Paxton), a cop who apparently left his old job after some trouble. Almost immediately Casey meets Jonas (Hellion star Josh Wiggins), and whether it's due to there not being any other kids their age around, they fall in love quickly. None of their families like the amount of time they're spending together.
Wayne takes it to another level, though. When Jonas catches him slapping Casey around, Wayne doesn't just issue idle threats. He takes out his aggression on Jonas physically, then warns him to never return. Every word out of Paxton's mouth oozes hatred and loathing, a nice contrast to his young stars who are a little too squeaky clean. Despite that, the relationship between Casey and Jonas is more than just a generic teenage crush. A harsh economic climate has affected both of their families and this the kids' outlook on life, which is reflected nicely by Nelisse and Wiggins, two actors with big futures ahead of them. They've already done exceptional work in the past and this film shows them maturing further, with a romance that is both playful and more adult than either character is prepared for.
The film turns on a dime when Casey and Jonas are forced to go on the run from Wayne, who is in pursuit of stolen cash they are in possession of. If Wayne was awful before, he's triple the scumbag when his money is on the line, although he continues to try and play the concerned father, worried about Casey's well-being. He's not always around, but the threat of Wayne, or his equally corrupt partner (Colm Feore) showing up looms heavy. And when they do arrive, it sends a shockwave of terror that is undeniable.
Boasting wonderfully evocative cinematography by Steven Cosens, young love is left to blossom against sun-kissed backdrops and autumn colors. The mood noticeably takes a darker tone, and Morlando's camerawork grows harsher as danger and violence begins to encroach on the runaways. You wish the setting, which is a non-descript "American" town, could have had as much personality as the characters do. While Nelisse and Wiggins have terrific chemistry, truly acting and talking like people their age do, it's Paxton who leaves the biggest impression. He's absolutely terrifying in the best way possible, and makes Mean Dreams essential viewing to all of his fans.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5