PERFORMANCE: BILL PAXTON GOES GARY COOPER-ISH

On Sunday, February 26th, 2017, reports of actor Bill Paxton’s death from complications following surgery came over my social media feed. At the age of 61, it didn’t quite seem possible that he could be gone. I was shocked, feeling nearly unable to process it. I saw the usual outpouring of Twitter and Facebook sadness, into which I myself waded. I don’t often, but when someone who really mattered to me shuffles off this mortal coil, I usually craft a statement of some sort, intended to express something about that person that inspired me, or left a mark in some way.

For Paxton, like it was with many people who saw his work on screens both large and small, it was 1986’s Aliens that went down as the indelible performance. His loudmouthed space marine, Hudson, was an essential part of James Cameron’s character dynamic, providing both comic relief and giving voice to the very real fear that someone in a fantastical situation, like being surrounded by insect-like aliens, would feel. He starts the film as a wise-ass braggart, and is reduced to a panic-stricken mess after the first assault on his platoon, all before recovering his courage and going out against the aliens in a blaze of glory, pulled beneath the floor by a monster he couldn’t see coming. I can still conjure the sound of his echoing scream, set against a close up of the shredded metal grate where he once stood.

As a nine year-old, when I first saw Aliens, his performance was the first one I felt connected to in that movie, and maybe, in any other. In reflecting on his sudden departure, I began to realize that seeing Bill Paxton’s Hudson was the first time I really became aware of character on film, and that people could be different from one another in a drama, at least outside of basic hero and villain dichotomies. As someone who was becoming interested in film, and my own writing, I think it was Paxton’s performance that led me to realize that writers and actors worked together to create characters, to give them full lives that felt organic to the dramatic situation. It was the way he slapped his hands together after buckling the other marines in during the drop to the planet, or the way he spit down a chasm opened up by an alien’s acidic blood, or the iconic, desperate reading of ‘Game over, man. Game over!’ He created a real character that I felt a connection to, and spawned countless imitators. Hudson became a stock character type that you can find in any number of sci-fi/horror/action films. That was because of Paxton’s performance.

While he was great in Aliens, and in so many other supporting roles throughout his career, he didn’t often get to play the lead. Most notably, there’s the HBO show Big Love, of course, where he played a Mormon home improvement store owner with three wives, for five seasons. There’s the crackling Sam Raimi thriller A Simple Plan, which is about as good as neo-noir gets. And then, there’s Carl Franklin’s 1992 thriller One False Move, where Paxton plays Sheriff Dale “Hurricane” Dixon.

One False Move was co-written by Paxton’s later A Simple Plan co-star Billy Bob Thornton, who also appears in this film as Ray Malcolm, one half of a drug dealer-murdering pair of thieves. At the film’s outset, Malcolm, along with his partner Pluto (Michael Beach) and his girlfriend Fantasia (Cynda Williams) murder some Los Angeles drug dealers, make off with their money, and start to head east towards Arkansas, where Fantasia, whose real name is Lila, wants to see her young son. They think they’ll be safe there. The police are soon hot on their trail, after figuring out where they’re headed.

This is where Dixon comes in – he’s the Sheriff in the small Arkansas town where the thieves are headed. Things get complicated when Dixon realizes Lila is with them; they had a fling, despite the fact that Dixon is married, and he’s the real father to her boy. Dixon, along with a pair of Los Angeles detectives, Cole (Jim Metzler) and McFeely (Earl Billings), ready themselves for the eventual arrival of the gang, hoping to spring a trap.

In something of an echo of his trajectory in Aliens, Paxton’s Dixon starts out as something of a hotshot. Though his biggest concern in the small town he polices is busting up domestic disputes, he fancies himself a big-time lawman with the chops to move out to L.A., which he suggests to Cole during the heat of the investigation. He’s a man who sees this as his big chance to prove to the city cops that he’s a hero in the mold of Gary Cooper.

Here’s where the movie, and Paxton’s performance, start to play with the western genre overtly. Though it’s set in Arkansas, far east from most classic, canonical western films, all the hallmarks of the genre are there. Specifically, One False Move plays a lot like a riff on High Noon (1952), director Fred Zinnemann’s classic about Sheriff Will Kane (Gary Cooper), the lone man willing to stand against a band of outlaws heading for his town. The basic plot of the two films is the same; the Sheriff waits out the ticking clock, as the danger he knows is coming keeps getting closer.

In his early scenes, Paxton invests Dixon with child-like excitement. While he updates the L.A. cops through the phone on a conference call, he can hardly contain his starstruck glee at talking with the Los Angeles Chief of Police.

schoolboy-excitement

He welcomes Cole and McFeely to town in an unorthodox way, pulling alongside their ride, in the opposite lane of traffic, and calling to them from his own patrol car. His line readings are full of the arrogant certainty he wants to convey to them. In these early scenes, he sees the two L.A. badges as men to impress; he doesn’t want to come off as some backwater Barney Fife, pulling cats out of trees and helping old ladies across the street. So, he shows off, playing the cool, smirking customer daring enough to ride double with them, pulling ahead at the last minute before getting flattened by an oncoming semi.

roadway

It’s all posturing. As the movie goes on, it becomes clearer that there’s a scared, insecure, unhappy man living beneath the put-on he’s doing for the city boys. This becomes increasingly prevalent in his scenes at home, where he routinely ignores his wife, and seems disinterested in his children. His real goal, the thing he thinks will solve all his problems, is to join the LAPD, which he mentions to Cole.

The movie’s most heartbreaking moment, all thanks to Paxton, is when, in the local coffee shop, Cole and McFeely share a laugh about Dixon’s expressed desire to join them out in Los Angeles. What they don’t know is that Dixon has come into the coffee shop, and is standing behind a lattice partition, and can hear every word and every guffaw.

heartbreak

Franklin’s camera slowly pushes in on Paxton, staring at Cole and McFeely through the lattice. We hear them laughing and joking, and see Paxton’s wounded eyes, mixed with the icy realization that these men aren’t really his friends. He listens. They joke. In this shot, he looks every bit the strong, silent type of hero that Gary Cooper was in High Noon, but we know it’s a mask, hiding something deeper and darker.

Where Paxton brings it home, though, is in the moment that follows. A waitress blows the joke when she says, ‘Hurricane!’, and Cole and McFeely realize Dixon has heard them. Instead of confronting them about it, or letting the embarrassed city cops apologize, Dixon ignores the slight. Paxton puts the good old boy smile on, and gets back to business, cutting McFeely off when he answers a call on the radio.

radio

Here, Paxton subtly layers the levels of emotion Dixon feels in that moment – there’s the terrible embarrassment he feels at catching them talking about him, along with the shame of realizing that his tough, ‘nothing-scares-me’ attitude is just a joke to them. Then, he’s communicating the sadness of a dream dashed on one level, and an effort to paper over the pain with his duty-bound honor to answer the click of the walkie-talkie on another. He can’t quite look at them. After the radio call, he says, ‘That’s us,’ with a forced smile and heads for the door, his eyes darting up momentarily and then immediately back down to the floor, as though he just can’t face the cops yet. The second he makes eye contact with them, he feels the hurt all over again, the brutal shame that he’s lesser in the eyes of the men he admires. He’s got to look down at the floor and get out to his car.

The scenes later in the film between Dale and Lila, after she returns to town, show Paxton’s range. He vacillates between anger and regret, alternately yelling at her and wearing the deep pain of what might have been on his face. The unexpressed, but very real sense that Dixon is deeply, bitterly unhappy with the life he has chosen, hangs over much of the movie, but it’s only as it progresses that you really see how Paxton’s choices fill the character with a fuller pathos than appears on the page. Thornton’s screenplay doesn’t convey the desperation with which Dixon wants to get out of Star City, Arkansas – Paxton does that, with looks like this, after he asks Lila if her mother knows he’s the father of the young boy.

pathos

The film concludes with a gun battle that’s remarkable for both its brutality and suddenness; it seems like it’s over just as quickly as it began. Paxton imbues the showdown with panic, as though he just might lose control of the whole situation. He’s a far cry from the reckless cop behind the wheel of a patrol car on the danger side of the highway, playing chicken with a truck barreling towards him.

He goes through the basic motions, telling the outlaws to freeze, but he doesn’t even identify himself as a police officer. In this crucial moment, the terror in his eyes says it all. He’s a man who thought he wanted to look into the darkness of the city’s violence, who believed he could stare it down. But, when he has to do it, he blinks. He’s stabbed, he’s shot, and Lila is killed by Ray’s stray bullet. He’s the only one left alive at the end, and even then, just barely. The film cuts to black before we find out if he survives, as he stares up at the son he had with Lila, who doesn’t know him at all.

And so, I say farewell to Bill Paxton. These are the moments to revel in what he left behind, and to appreciate what he could do.

Game over, man. Game over.

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