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Casting Bill Paxton in a yarn about a bag of dirty money in the hands of criminal novices and a hunt that builds to a grim backwoods showdown inevitably summons comparison with Sam Raimi’s crackling 1998 neo-noir, A Simple Plan. The acknowledged influences of Canadian director Nathan Morlando in Mean Dreams are even higher yardsticks: Badlands and No Country for Old Men. It’s not surprising that this Northern Gothic thriller about young lovers on the run doesn’t come close to any of those progenitors. But it does mostly keep you watching with its somber mood and the melancholy beauty of its visuals.
That’s despite a screenplay by Kevin Coughlin and Ryan Grassby that puts many of the right building blocks in place in terms of plot, but then spells out the eternal divide between good and evil way too literally with a half-baked fairy-tale motif. And as the stakes are heightened, the filmmakers too often short-change dramatic verisimilitude with movie-ish cliché, implausible plotting and cumbersome dialogue.
What the film does have going for it is a gorgeous autumnal color palette of rusts and golds and browns in cinematographer Steve Cosens‘ burnished images of the quietly majestic Northern Ontario locations. Morlando cites the paintings of Andrew Wyeth as an inspiration, and that grounding in rural realism gives Mean Dreams an atmospheric weight that to some degree counters its scripting weaknesses. The dense sonic landscape of Ryan Lott’s Son Lux project also adds to the film’s texture, ranging from the gentlest acoustic underscoring to propulsive drums in moments of accelerating danger.
Paxton plays Wayne Caraway, an amoral lawman and a mean drunk, who has traded the punching bag of his late wife for his teenage daughter Casey (Sophie Nelisse). She tiptoes around him with apprehension stamped all over her face. New to the area, she meets her 15-year-old neighbor Jonas (Josh Wiggins) while out with her dog in the woods. We know right away that he’s the essence of kindness because he’s releasing a captured rattlesnake back into the wild. But snakes come in many forms.
Jonas’ home life is oppressive in different ways to Casey’s. His father (Joe Cobden) made him quit school to work on the struggling farm, and he rides the boy hard, perhaps partly out of buried anger about the chronic depression of his wife (Vickie Papavs).
These two pensive kids clearly are meant to be together and they know it, but ultra-possessive Wayne doesn’t take kindly to anyone sniffing around his little angel. Jonas tries to intervene while Casey is getting smacked around by her angered father; he almost gets killed as a result, with Wayne promising to finish the job next time. After getting zero sympathy from the local police chief (Colm Feore), Jonas continues trying to keep an eye on Casey, though how he intends to fend off Wayne remains unclear.
A means of escape presents itself when Jonas is hiding out in the back of Wayne’s pickup; he witnesses a criminal exchange of seized narcotics for cash, during which Wayne also is revealed to be a ruthless killer. Impulsively grabbing an opportunity, Jonas absconds with a bag containing close to $1 million, taking Casey with him as her father gives chase. The film then balances tender scenes of young love with suspenseful pursuit sequences as these two kids in over their heads are forced to grow up fast.
Both the young actors give sensitive performances, high on vulnerability. The relative chasteness of the romance — they don’t even share their first kiss until a severe storm forces them out of their forest hideout into a motel — adds to the theme of lamb-like innocents in a vicious world of unreliable guardians. Unfortunately, it all starts to feel a tad too familiar as they get caught up in violence and have to arm up to protect themselves.
Wiggins, who already showed impressive talent in the 2014 Sundance entry Hellion, turns in the strongest work. Distinguished Canadian stage veteran Feore can’t do much with the script’s thin outline of another corrupt cop without a conscience. But Paxton faces more serious issues given that Wayne is presented as a monstrous creep from the start, leaving him nowhere to go. (When Jonas tells him, “You’re a bad man,” you can almost hear the audience’s collective, “Duh.”) His lurch from snarling rage to crazy-eyed sniveling is borderline embarrassing in a climax that’s simultaneously overwrought and underpowered.
Despite some excellent craft elements, this ultimately feels like the kind of sub-Sundance fare that gets consigned to a VOD life.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors Fortnight)
Production companies: Woods Entertainment, in association with Euclid341
Cast: Sophie Nelisse, Josh Wiggins, Colm Feore, Bill Paxton, Joe Cobden, Vickie Papavs
Director: Nathan Morlando
Screenwriters: Kevin Coughlin, Ryan Grassby
Producers: William Woods, Allison Black
Executive producers: Patrice Theroux, Rob McGillivray, Jonathan Bronfman, Tom Spriggs
Director of photography: Steve Cosens
Production designer: Zosia MacKenzie
Costume designer: Marissa Schwartz
Music: Son Lux
Editors: Ronald Sanders, Sandy Pereira
Casting: Angela Demo, Robin D. Cook
Sales: UTA, Mister Smith Entertainment
Not rated, 108 minutes.
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