Movie actors intend no less than to live forever, a goal that seems likely for the ever-likable, endlessly surprising Bill Paxton, who died last weekend at age 61 from complications following heart surgery. (Too damn soon.) No softie, Paxton created memorable movie villains, including the loves-his-work vampire in Near Dark (1988) — “It’s finger-lickin’ good!” — and a terrifying serial-killer father of two in the neglected gem Frailty (2001), which Paxton also directed. For all that, the Texas-born actor likely will be remembered as a perennial “good guy,” a phrase Paxton probably wouldn’t mind a bit, as long as we also acknowledge his artful gift for revealing the dark currents that ran beneath that infectious, unforgettable grin.
As tribute, try this potent double bill: One False Move (1992) and A Simple Plan (1998), two superb dramas that bear all the trappings of a crime thriller but gradually evolve into richly emotional character studies. Director Carl Franklin’s One False Move isn’t famous, but its mix of ferocity and grace marks it as a classic. Paxton is Dale “Hurricane” Dixon, the police chief of a dusty Arkansas town, who nearly busts with excitement when two FBI men show up to trap three killers — two men and a woman — making their way cross-country. Written by Tom Epperson and Billy Bob Thornton, who plays one of the killers, One False Move opens with the brutal drug-related murder of six and stays tough-minded throughout, but the tone shifts once Dale realizes that the wanted girl coming home to Star City, Arkansas, is Lila (Cynda Williams), with whom he once had an affair. One scene later, he realizes the little boy Lila’s mother is raising is his.
Something to notice: Paxton had a way of going completely still when his character learns new, world-altering information. In director Sam Raimi’s beautifully realized A Simple Plan, Paxton is Hank, a Minnesota feed-store clerk who decides to keep the $4 million he and his brother (Thornton again, and never better) found in a crashed plane in the woods. Relentlessly ordinary, with a wife (Bridget Fonda) and new baby, Hank is so obsessed with doing the right thing (for everyone) that he talks himself into committing murder, and not just once.
Next to the fundamentalist Mormon businessman he played on the HBO series Big Love, Hank was Paxton’s greatest role, and again, the performance’s power lies in those moments when circumstance stuns Hank into silence. People are forever revealing their secret selves to Hank — the good guy’s burden — and Paxton lets us see Hank strain beneath their emotional weight. In the end, Hank’s been wrong about everything, including that bag of money, and Raimi trusts that Paxton doesn’t need words to let us feel Hank’s psychic shock — we see it settling into his bones.
When I learned Paxton had died, I immediately thought of the finale of One False Move, which finds Dale, stabbed and shot, lying on the ground, his face turned to the side, away from the camera. His little boy has wandered over to him, and though wounded, Dale is determined to keep the child distracted from the bloodier carnage nearby. So, he keeps talking. Franklin never shows us Dale’s face in this scene, but he doesn’t have to. As an actor (and movie star), Paxton’s greatest asset may have been his voice, which was full to bursting with a generosity of feeling that made him the rarest of screen presences — a fully realized human.