When first we see Bill Paxton onscreen in “Mean Dreams,” yes, we are taken out of the movie for a moment as we lament the recent passing of one of the most valuable and well-liked character actors of the last 30 years.
Quickly, though, we are back inside the movie, and it’s a tribute to Paxton’s skill set that for brief while we hate Bill Paxton. We really, really hate him.
Paxton gives a chilling performance as a monstrously abusive father in director Nathan Morlando’s stark and bleak “Mean Dreams,” a tribute of sorts to Terrence Malick’s 1973 classic “Badlands,” both in style and story. (If you’re going to deliver a somewhat derivative homage, why not tip your camera to one of the all-time best?)
Set in rural America but shot in northern Ontario, Canada, “Mean Dreams” is filled with brilliant visuals, often coated in tones of deep reds and October-ish yellows and browns. (The nighttime shots from cinematographer Steve Cosens have a sharper, more ominous look.)
Sophie Nelisse (“The Book Thief”) plays Casey, who’s new in town, and Josh Wiggins is Jonas, a local farmboy. They’re both 15 years old and they Meet Cute over Casey’s wandering dog, and they fall for each almost instantly — but once Casey’s widowed cop father Wayne gets wind of the budding relationship, he says it ain’t happening.
Wayne threatens Jonas, threatens Jonas’ troubled family and tells the kid to get off his property and never come back. Later, when Jonas tells Casey he’s not afraid of her dad, Casey quickly replies: “You should be.”
There’s something innately terrifying about Wayne, whether he’s grinning his crooked grin and quietly threatening a teenage kid, or commanding his daughter to “come here.” The way in which he says it, and the look of pure dread on her face in response, tells us Wayne has a very twisted and sick hold on his daughter.
The forbidden romance plot line, and the back stories about Casey’s and Jonas’ families are rich enough dramatic fodder — but “Mean Dreams” kicks into another gear after a series of events leads to Casey and Jonas on the run, with life-changing cash in their possession and Casey’s psychopathic father hot on their trail.
Versatile character actor Colm Feore (“24,” “House of Cards,” “Thor,” “The Amazing Spider-Man 2”) matches Paxton’s presence scene by scene as Wayne’s equally corrupt, equally morally bankrupt partner in crime.
Young actors Sophie Nelisse and Josh Wiggins have strong chemistry as the teenage lovers on the run. They look and act and sounds like real-life teenagers. (They were both about the same ages as the characters when the movie was filmed.)
While the plot often travels familiar paths and even the impressive camerawork is evocative of other films, “Mean Dreams” has a few story tricks up its sleeve — and it has Bill Paxton, playing one of the most odious characters he ever played, and doing it with absolute mastery.
Vertical Entertainment presents a film directed by Nathan Morlando and written by Kevin Coughlin and Ryan Grassby. Rated R (for some violence and language). Running time: 105 minutes. Opens Friday at AMC River East and on demand.