Even if it were not for the fact that Mean Dreams has become Bill Paxton's penultimate picture, Nathan Morlando's thriller would be worth recommending entirely on its own merits. Start with cinematographer Steve Cosens (The Tracey Fragments), who uses sharp focus and the occasional faded Polaroid-style filter to lovingly caress every bump and contour of the jagged tree stumps and run-down farmhouses that litter the beautifully middle-of-nowhere setting. The effect makes this world alien yet universal: The two teens who will become our leads fall in love because they are literally the only boy and girl in the world as far as their eyes can see. Jonas (Josh Wiggins) is an only child who works on his parents' farm; Casey (Sophie Nélisse) has just moved to town with single dad Wayne (Paxton), who's a cop and has recently been reassigned.
For better or for worse, Paxton's performance will be the focus of viewers’ attention, so it is decidedly to the good that he doesn't just deliver. He gives a sort of master class on why we've loved him: Paxton was amazing in the role of regular guys, and equally compelling as the subversion of same. Here, our trust in him when he's playing laid-back is expertly twisted once the actor snaps and reaches the end of his rope; like Luke Skywalker confronting Darth Vader, we can see in him the good person who went bad.
In Paxton’s first Mean Dreams scene, this dynamic is played for ambiguity: Wayne and Casey are in a new house, far from anything they know, and there's a tension between them. Is it standard teenage-girl-forced-to-relocate huffiness, or something more sinister? Could be either, just as Wayne’s slightly menacing initial stance toward Jonas might just be typical cop-dad aggressive protectiveness, or a sign that this is a terrible human being.
Minor spoiler: It's the latter. Casey potentially getting a boyfriend isn't Wayne’s problem; being a murderous drunk is. When he beats Casey and tries to drown Jonas, the teenagers decide to run away together. Wayne pursues them, and the tension thickens when they discover evidence of activities far worse than the occasional alcoholic rage. Paxton seemed the epitome of well-adjusted but was adept at playing the opposite. At his side as the local police chief is Colm Feore, as coldly distant and sinister a sidekick as he could ask for, all restrained villainous ego to Paxton's evil id.
The teen romance that's front and center is as charming as it is chaste — these kids are too young to be getting it on, and so they don't; they're just looking for a break from their parents long enough to perceive the joys of their surroundings. Said surroundings are as much heightened beauty as Paxton's bad dad is heightened evil, and show us the world as an infatuated young adult might see it. Morlando (Citizen Gangster) either has a great memory of what it was to be 15 or a powerful enough imagination to dream it again.
Bill Paxton's last movie will be The Circle, a star-studded thriller with Tom Hanks, Emma Watson, John Boyega, Patton Oswalt and Karen Gillan, meaning that in one sense he'll go out in splendor surrounded by friends. But Mean Dreams reminds us why we fell for him in the first place, as he and it are no-frills portraits of a heartland both good and ill, making every moment count.