Greatish Performances #30

ice-pax

#30 — Bill Paxton as Dale “Hurricane” Dixon in One False Move (Carl Franklin, 1992)

Bill Paxton’s most iconic performances tend toward emotive intensity. To a degree, that’s simply a product of the films that crossed over into broader public consciousness, especially since Paxton was one of director James Cameron’s go-to supporting actors, briefly playing a punk with a hair-trigger temper in The Terminator and famously wailing, “Game over, man!” in Aliens. (The one time Paxton got to try out understatement in a Cameron film, in Titanic, he was saddled with some of the most leaden exposition dialogue in the history of cinema.) The pinnacle of this thespian excess was arguably Paxton’s turn as Chet, the epitome of bullying masculinity in Weird Science, the John Hughes exercise in the purely ludicrous.

Paxton’s willingness to approach these roles with unashamed gusto was admirable (and surely contributed to his steady work schedule over the years), but it also obscured that he had the capacity to operate in a more subtle timbre. There are plentiful examples of that in his career, but they tend to get lost in the celebrated bombast. That helped one of his finest turns come across as downright revelatory when it arrived.

In One False Move, Paxton plays Dale “Hurricane” Dixon, the police chief of Star City, Arkansas, a humble little town when nothing much even happens. When a trio of thieves (played by Michael Beach, Cynda Williams, and Billy Bob Thornton, the latter also co-credited on the screenplay) commit several murders in Los Angeles. When the the Los Angeles authorities find evidence that the wanted criminals are heading to Star City, the investigation moves there, and Dale is enthused by the chance to do some real police work.

A lot of films would settle on a depiction of Dale as a genial yokel, and there are hints of that to Paxton’s performance. Mostly, though, he emphasizes Dale’s capability. He might not have ample experience with brutal felonies, but he knows his town and the people in it. He navigates with confidence through the most mundane day-to-day activities, included the flare ups of local malcontents. He knows precisely when to shout aggressors down, and he knows when the wisest route is talking to them calmly, coaxing them to sounder choices.

With that baseline, Paxton shows how tremors of doubt enter into Dale. The case proves more complicated than Dale initially imagined, especially when his own compromised history edges through the door. Anxiety and tension swirl to the surface without ever quite lapsing into desperation, even when the situation is at its most dire.

By the end of the film, when Dale is simultaneously triumphant and gravely injured, he a true moment of grace, making a connection with a previously ignored young boy who nonetheless figures mightily in his life. Paxton was often called upon to go big. This scene — and much of One False Move — gave him the chance to withdraw a bit, to play it small, restrained, tender. He is marvelous at it, imbuing the scene with a lovely humanity. It’s far from his most famous moment on screen, but I’d argue it’s his very best.

Previously….

About Greatish Performances
#1 — Mason Gamble in Rushmore
#2 — Judy Davis in The Ref
#3 — Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
#4 — Kirsten Dunst in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
#5 — Parker Posey in Waiting for Guffman
#6 — Patricia Clarkson in Shutter Island
#7 — Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise
#8 — Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
#9 — Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy
#10 — Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny
#11 — Nick Nolte in the “Life Lessons” segment of New York Stories
#12 — Thandie Newton in The Truth About Charlie
#13 — Danny Glover in Grand Canyon
#14 — Rachel McAdams in Red Eye
#15 — Malcolm McDowell in Time After Time
#16 — John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch
#17 — Michelle Pfeiffer in White Oleander
#18 — Kurt Russell in The Thing
#19 — Eric Bogosian in Talk Radio
#20 — Linda Cardellini in Return
#21 — Jeff Bridges in The Fisher King
#22 — Oliver Platt in Bulworth
#23 — Michael B. Jordan in Creed
#24 — Thora Birch in Ghost World
#25 — Kate Beckinsale in The Last Days of Disco
#26 — Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys
#27 Wilford Brimley in The Natural
#28 — Kevin Kline in Dave
#29 — Bill Murray in Scrooged

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