Director Nathan Morlando cites Badlands and No Country for Old Men as his biggest influences for his second feature film, Mean Dreams, screening in this year’s Directors’ Fortnight. Lofty titles which he cannot quite match, but his nifty little thriller about two teens on the run is, if you can look past its flaws, entertaining and tense enough to kill two hours with. Excellent casting of the two leads and some outstanding tech work lift Mean Dreams above the standard action thriller fare, and its modest budget ($1.8M) shows that you can make entertaining stuff on a relative nickel and a dime.
In a nondescript rural area somewhere in the United States, farm boy Jonas (an excellent Josh Wiggins, mostly known for Hellion) gets a new neighbor in the form of Casey (fresh-faced, doe-eyed Sophie Nélisse, perfectly cast). The two meet as Jonas releases a rattlesnake he caught into the woods, and his polite, somewhat shy behavior, matched by Casey as they dance around each other in early scenes, immediately settles him as a good, righteous boy. Unfortunately for him, this wasn’t the only snake around.
A bigger one comes in the form of Wayne (a scenery-chewing Bill Paxton), Casey’s abusive, possessive father, but also a local cop. An early confrontation over Wayne’s abuse of Casey pits the young Jonas against the bad cop, and after Jonas makes off with a duffel bag containing one million dollars that Wayne got out of a rip deal, all hell breaks loose. Jonas picks up Casey at her house before her father notices the bag missing, but when he does, the chase is on.
Mean Dreams will not win any originality prizes, as its screenplay relies too much on improbable decisions and at times hokey dialogue, but it does provide some edges to the young couple and allows them to shine in some quiet scenes as just two kids who have fallen in love at a really bad time. The Badlands comparison comes easy here, although Jonas and Casey do not go on a killing spree, and Nélisse exudes the same innocence Sissy Spacek did 40 years ago. A scene in which Casey has to rob a pharmacy in order to get painkillers for a severely wounded Jonas showcases that Nélisse (Monsieur Lazhar, The Book Thief) has the acting chops. Meanwhile, Josh Wiggins, though often presented with the worst dialogue, gives off vibes of an early Matt Damon in his good-natured Jonas. Bill Paxton wallows in his ‘bad cop’ character, sneering and wildly gesticulating his way through cliche after cliche, overacting like only Bill Paxton can do.
Visually, the film wears its Badlands influences on its sleeve too, with a bit of Coen on top. Think wavy corn fields and dusky shots of wide open spaces, all exquisitely rendered in a palette of fall hues by cinematographer Steve Cosens, creating an atmosphere just chilling enough to keep the viewer on edge. Although for that, the movie could probably rely on Son Lux’s intense score and the immersive sound design of rustling leaves and pattering rain alone. Lux’s heavy use of percussion in some of the more tense scenes in particular raises the stakes, and the set piece in which Jonas first witnesses Wayne’s rip deal and subsequently takes off with the money is elevated to one of the tensest sequences in recent history because of it, rivaling Denis Villeneuve’s (another Morlando influence) border sequence in Sicario.
Despite the weakness of the screenplay in places, Morlando manages to keep Mean Dreams on the right, if predictable, track until the end with assured direction and a good sense of framing, making the open spaces of rural America feel at once a place of safety as well as a place where you can be exposed. The Canadian director has an eye for evocative imagery, and traces of early Malick can be found in Mean Dreams, although with somewhat grittier visuals. With a slightly better screenplay, Morlando may be capable of a small masterpiece, but for now we have to settle for Mean Dreams (hopefully) being the Blue Ruin of this year’s Quinzaine. It is a tight little genre flick that should find receptive audiences on home turf and at festivals abroad, and give Morlando a step up to bigger work. Although Mean Dreams proves he is perfectly capable of crafting something good out of very little.