On Friday and Saturday at midnight the Music Box is showing Near Dark, Kathryn Bigelow’s first solo directorial effort, on 35-millimeter. The theater had planned the screenings as a commemoration of the film’s 30th anniversary, but now they double as a tribute to the actor Bill Paxton, who delivered a memorable supporting turn in the movie, and who passed away last month from complications following heart surgery. A chronically underrated player in American movies, the versatile Paxton fared well both in comedy (Weird Science, Club Dread) and drama (One False Move, A Simple Plan), bringing a likable earnestness to both genres. Paxton is probably most beloved for his roles in action and adventure movies—Aliens, Predator 2, Tombstone, Apollo 13, True Lies, and Twister—and for good reason: he’s the most recognizably human element in these large-scale productions, his modesty as a performer matched by his evident enthusiasm for whatever story he’s helping to tell. Even when he overacted, as in Near Dark or Club Dread, his overacting was never self-important or at odds with the material. It felt like exactly what the movie called for.
In Near Dark, Paxton plays Severen, the hotheaded, borderline-psychotic member of a group of itinerant vampires who prey across the American southwest. Bigelow has said that the film grew out of her desire to make a western, and Paxton’s character recalls a bad-guy archetype familiar from many movies in that genre. Severen is the thug that the rest of the gang always has to cool down, the one who starts barroom fights, the one who keeps threatening the film’s hero (Adrian Pasdar), a new recruit to the traveling vampires, for not being tough enough. He’s the loose cannon of the gang, the sort of character Dan Duryea was so good at playing in the 1940s and ’50s. (Incidentally one could also see Paxton thriving in Hollywood during those decades, given his versatility and respect for genre conventions.) Paxton plays the role with relish, gesticulating like a bad karaoke performer and interjecting his dialogue with odd homilies he picked up from reading old paperback westerns (e.g. “That smells like a dead pole cat!”). His exaggerated faux-menace turns legitimately scary after you see Severen become violent—the joke is that he’s not joking.
With its stripped-down visuals and characterizations, Near Dark evokes the elemental westerns that Budd Boetticher directed in the 1950s (Ride Lonesome, Seven Men From Now). It also recalls Anthony Mann’s Man of the West (1958) in its central conflict: Does Caleb, Pasdar’s character, go with the outlaws or return to his father’s farmstead and lead a respectable life? Bigelow draws on the eroticism of the vampire genre to make the outlaw life seem seductive (Adam Greenberg’s gorgeous night photography has its own erotic charge too), and she makes Caleb’s farm life seem dull through hackneyed imagery and a stolid performance from Tim Thomerson as Caleb’s father. The allure of living outside the law would become a recurring theme in Bigelow’s films (Point Break, Zero Dark Thirty), but never again did she convey the theme so starkly.
The film reaches its apotheosis in an extended sequence where the vampires massacre a road house. Bigelow invites viewers to share in the vampires’ perspective, using her tremendous skills at directing action to make the massacre come off as thrilling. The build-up to the gore is terribly suspenseful, and the resulting mayhem feels cathartic. Paxton’s responsible for much of the build-up in how he psychologically messes with the first of his victims before initiating violence. (Severen is the type of vampire who likes to play with his food.) His performance, like the scene as a whole, represents a successful fusion of archetypes from westerns, vampire stories, and criminals-on-the-run movies. Perhaps the combination feels authentic rather than overdetermined because it’s so eerily familiar. “When the vampires come back to you . . . they can seem most of all like the people you try not to look at as you walk down the street,” as Greil Marcus wrote in a piece about his favorite films of the 1980s. He also asserted that Near Dark had traces of Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song: There’s “the same hideously empty landscape, boredom forcing out morals, the same sense that some people simply have to be killed . . .” In short, the movie is a distinctly American creation, much like Paxton’s performance.