Make the Case lists choices chronologically, rather than in any order of quality. Picks reflect film acting roles only. If the actor in question also directed the movie, that’s purely a coincidence, and it plays no part in the film’s inclusion.
The one thing I never wanted Make The Case to become is a walking obituary. I wrote a number of celebrity obits for Drunk Monkeys, and I never really enjoyed it. It can be fun to go through a career for the research, but dealing in death over and over again can wear a person down. Make The Case can deal in the living and the dead. However, I only write one of these a month. These days, our older actors, actresses, directors, and others are dropping off like flies. Most months, I can and will find someone who died recently to feature here.
But I really don’t want to do that.
And then someone like Bill Paxton dies. I can’t help but want to talk about that. I want to add to the tributes that have been pouring in, highlighting an actor who exceled for most of a long, prolific career. Paxton was one of the greatest supporting actors of the past thirty years. He could accomplish a great deal with even a little screen time. He was also capable of brilliance in a variety of leading roles, including Big Love, an HBO series that put him at the front of an amazing ensemble.
As the recent tributes pour in, everyone is suddenly realizing “Bill Paxton was a really, really good actor.”
I don’t begrudge anyone who is just realizing that. It’s kind of dawning on me, too, although I’ve always liked the energy Paxton brought to his best roles. Since he died, I’ve been coming across films he did that I had never even heard of. I’m only now coming to appreciate his astonishing versatility as a physical comedian. I’m also discovering an apparent knack for playing outsiders from a myriad of backgrounds, attitudes, subtle gestures, tones, and mindsets.
Again and again, I’ve found myself saying “Bill Paxton was a really, really good actor.”
So here we are with another Make The Case that eulogizes the departed. It’s not going to become a regular part of the column, but there are always going to be times I feel compelled to throw in my own little tribute.
Obviously, this is one of those times.
1. Weird Science (1985)
Weird Science was Paxton’s tenth film role, coming right on the heels of a memorable appearance in The Terminator (the first of several collaborations with James Cameron). It’s certainly one of the first things I ever remember seeing him in. That seems to hold true for a lot of others, as well. This is just one example of Paxton stealing a movie, or at least standing out in something that’s already crowded with great performances. Weird Science has a ton of elements that serve to make it an enduring classic of its decade. Paxton’s beautifully scummy performance as Chet, the sadistic older brother of Ilan Mitchell-Smith’s character, is one of the most popular of those elements.
2. Aliens (1986)
Aliens might be the best movie James Cameron will ever make. No one is going to say that Paxton is a huge reason behind that. At the same time, one of the best things about Aliens is the fact that it combines breathless action scenes with palpable tension that permeates every single solitary second of the film. That alone is enough to make Aliens an enjoyable film. What continues to establish the second film in the franchise as the favorite of many, perhaps even a majority, are the performances contained within the gunfire and bedlam that swallows up Ripley, poor Newt, and the rest. Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Carrie Henn, and Lance Henriksen are all great in this film for different reasons.
As the marine who goes completely to pieces, which includes the still-quoted catchphrase “GAME OVER, MAN!”, Bill Paxton is another of those great performances. His arrogant, babbling terror is an entertaining, important part of the various personalities that make up the arguably unfortunate survivors. The dynamic of these personalities keeps the movie rolling along, providing additional substance to the action and mayhem. Paxton was a key figure in that dynamic.
3. Near Dark (1987)
At this point, we may not even get out of the 80s. Since many of Paxton’s best performances can be found in that decade, it’s fair enough. You certainly can’t make any list of the best Bill Paxton movies, and exclude what might be the best vampire movie of all time. I know more than a few people who feel that way about Kathryn Bigelow’s entertaining, bleak, and ferociously violent horror movie. The movie was years ahead of its time, in terms of atmosphere, pacing, and an overall direction that allowed for several unique personalities to exist in the film’s vicious universe.
The punk rock edge of Paxton’s vampire Severen is just one aspect to the character that compels us. A movie filled with memorable humans and monsters (mostly monsters), Paxton’s vampire is particularly vile, even for the brutal gang that he moves with. His vampire if pitiless, gleeful in his unstable cruelty, and absolutely unforgettable. If horror movies were respected by the dismal assholes at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Paxton would have garnered an Oscar nomination. The fact that he was never nominated at all in his long career is absurd.
4. One False Move (1992)
Cited by Gene Siskel as his favorite movie of 1992, One False Move is one of the best noir films of the past thirty years. It was a big break for Billy Bob Thornton, who wrote the screenplay, and appears as a particularly disgusting criminal. His performance is a good one, but there is no question that strictly in terms of great acting, the movie belongs to Paxton.
One False Move presents a character study that is far more complex than it sometimes gets credit for. Paxton’s portrayal of redneck sheriff Dale “Hurricane” Dixon, a man eager to escape his rural south trappings for a bigger and better gig with a bigger and better law enforcement agency, is the centerpiece of this character study. As he works to prove that he is more than just another racist hillbilly with a badge, Thornton’s script presents a man who has to reconcile his past with his present at a speed no one is ever prepared to handle. Filled with flaws, and ultimately prepared to do the right thing at any cost, Dixon is a fascinating character. Paxton brings him to absolutely riveting life.
5. A Simple Plan (1998)
Keep this in mind: Even though our list is ending in 1998, nearly twenty years before Paxton died, the hits for Paxton didn’t end with this decade. In the 2000s, he continued to appear memorably in movies ranging from Frailty, to Haywire, to Edge of Tomorrow, and on, and on. Even in death, movies are still slated to come out. Mean Dreams, slated for release later this year, is a good example of that. Watch a trailer. Bill Paxton remained a formidable, versatile screen presence to the very end.
And keep in mind that we didn’t even really cover all of his best work in the 80s or 90s. I would certainly recommend checking out films like Brain Dead, The Vagrant, Twister, True Lies, Frank and Jesse, Indian Summer, Apollo 13, Tombstone, or Boxing Helena.
That doesn’t even get us into Big Love.
A Simple Plan closes out this list for several reasons. Obviously, Paxton’s phenomenal (again, no Oscar? What the fuck, assholes?) performance is the main argument. However, it has to be said that this noir thriller from Sam Raimi is another flawless example of that genre in every possible way. The writing, the Danny Elfman score, the pacing, and the genuinely smart plot twists all make for a film that is quite frankly unshakably good. Bridget Fonda and Billy Bob Thornton both create distinctive characters with those resources.
However, and this is not a thought influenced by Bill Paxton’s tragic death at age 61, the sympathetic Hank Mitchell is far and away the most important, engaging character of them all. Hank makes a lot of bad choices. He’s also just a guy who wanted a break. We believe that. We grieve for his bad fortune. The writing and direction of A Simple Plan contribute a lot to those impressions. Paxton’s performance makes it so human, so relatable, we almost wish for a happy ending.