THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
Bill Paxton was one of those actors who elicited a smile whenever he came onscreen. He was 100% solid in everything he did, never phoning it in, never failing to deliver anything less than a compelling performance. When Paxton died unexpectedly from complications following heart surgery, he left two unreleased films behind. One of them, Mean Dreams, is a fairly conventional indie drama, although it's vastly elevated by the acting – both his and his costars'.
Josh Wiggins (Lost in the Sun) plays Jonas Ford, the teenage son of a farmer. His life becomes exponentially more interesting when he gets a new neighbor, Casey Caraway (Sophie Nelisse). They strike up a friendship, which quickly turns into puppy love. When Jonas sees Casey's cop father Wayne (Paxton) physically abuse her, he intervenes, getting his butt kicked in the process. After discovering that Wayne is corrupt, Jonas steals a bag of drug money from him and hits the road with Casey. Thus begins a cat-and-mouse game with the teens trying to outrun the vengeful father.
Plotwise, Mean Dreams fits squarely into a well-worn You stole my dirty money and now I'm coming to get you! formula. There's really nothing here that hasn't been done many times before. Predicting what's going to happen from scene to scene isn't difficult because the beats are ripped straight out of every other movie where people go on the run after crossing someone dangerous.
Even so, this is a case where strong performances elevate the material. Wiggins and Nelisse are both terrific, creating characters who are sincere and relatable. The teen protagonists may be stuck in a paint-by-numbers plot, yet we still care about their plight. Just as importantly, the actors sell one of the story's most important ideas, which is that Jonas thinks he's saving Casey, when it is really she who is saving him. Casey knows her father won't hesitate to kill Jonas, so she goes along with his idea to flee. Because the stars handle that so well, the outcome carries more weight than it otherwise might.
Mean Dreams' biggest asset, as you can no doubt guess, is Paxton. Wayne is a thoroughly cliched character, although you'd never know it from watching the actor. He finds the tortured humanity inside this abusive, crooked cop. Paxton is genuinely menacing in an original way, driving the story and keeping the tension high. Even in the predictable final showdown, the way he handles the character transcends the screenplay's cliches. Watching Paxton is a pleasure, as well as a bittersweet reminder that we won't get to see any more accomplished work from him.
Credit must also go to director Nathan Morlando and cinematographer Steve Cosens, who beautifully establish a remote country setting that underscores the peril Jonas and Casey are in. Mean Dreams may not be particularly original, but with an effectively somber atmosphere and first-rate performances, it's a sufficiently entertaining little thriller.
So long, Mr. Paxton, and thanks for all the magnificent work.
( out of four)
Mean Dreams is rated R for some violence and language. The running time is 1 hour and 46 minutes.
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