Actor Bruce Dern has carved out a Hollywood career playing villains. He achieved the zenith of screen infamy when he gunned down John Wayne in the western "The Cowboys" (1972). "Wild River" (1960) marked Dern's film debut. Ironically, he never got credit for it. Afterward, he guest starred on just about every prime time tv series until 1970 when he alternated between theatrical films and made-for-TV movies. Along the way, he landed some leading roles in Douglas Trumbull's "Silent Running" (1971),Alfred Hitchcock's "Family Plot" (1976) and Hal Ashby's "Coming Home" (1978). At age 85, Dern is still in demand. He has five films in post-production, three filming, and another three in pre-production. Huffing and puffing with unrepentant villainy, Dern steals the show in writer & director Scott Windhauser's "Death in Texas (**** OUT OF ****),a gritty, contemporary, morality yarn about redemption in a world writhing with disease, greed, and corruption. Although the story takes place in El Paso, Windhauser produced it largely in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Co-starring with Dern in this grim but rewarding crime thriller are Laura Flynn Boyle, Stephen Lang, John Ashton, and Ronnie Gene Blevins. Windhauser specializes in genre pieces about adventure & crime, but he surpasses himself in "Death in Texas." Weaving together a web of storylines, he congregates characters whose lives would never have crossed with each other. This low budget, but evocative crime thriller chronicles the dismal metaphysical odyssey of a doomed parolee who finds peace for himself and happiness for his long-suffering mother. "Death in Texas" eschews humor but embraces tragedy with a heretofore untapped realism as our woebegone hero struggles to provide for his ailing mother while dodging Juarez Cartel gunmen.
When "Death in Texas" opens, convicted criminal Billy Walker (Ronnie Gene Blevins of "Feral State") sits before a parole board. Predictably, they don't like his evasive answer to their question about whether he has accepted responsibility for the error of his ways. Mind you, Billy hails from a fractured family. Not only was he forged in chaos but also he never knew his father. No matter what he does, Billy always does the wrong thing and gets the worst end of it. He beat to death a man who assaulted his mother in a diner. He slugged the guy senseless while witnesses watched in horror. The judge sentenced him to seven years. Now, Billy presents his case to the two-person parole board and sabotages himself with his own words. They are ruling out his request for parole when a sheaf of papers lands in their hands. They look at each other in complete disbelief. Incredibly, they grant Billy's parole request, and he goes home to his mother, Grace Andrews (Laura Flynn Boyle of "Men in Black II"),who has arranged a homecoming party for him. Billy is stunned to learn his mom needs a liver. Worse, Grace ranks so low on the list the chances of acquiring a liver are nil. Grace's physician Dr. Perkins (Sam Daly of "Cut Throat City") confides in Billy that the only chance of survival his mom has is if he is prepared to buy a liver from the Juarez Cartel! A liver costs $160 thousand.
Predictably, Billy doesn't find a job. Happily, he meets a sympathetic bartender, Jennifer (Cher Cosenza of "The Wilde Wedding"),who happens to be a blond bombshell. She keeps his glass filled and listens to his woes. Eventually, Billy rubs shoulders with Tyler (Mike Foy of "Green Rush"),a loud-mouth, low-level cartel hoodlum at the bar. Tyler runs a sex slavery ring and sells drugs for the cartel. Recklessly, he shows Billy his stash of cash in his warbag bound for his bosses. You can see Billy getting the wrong ideas at the sight of all those bundles of currency. Predictably, since he cannot land a job, Billy resorts to crime. Along the way, he makes two enemies that dog his trail to the end. First, the cartel money he stole belonged to an American gangster, Reynolds (Bruce Dern of "Nebraska"),who dispatches his Mexican gunsels who dress like rodeo cowboys. Second, when they cannot locate our elusive hero, Reynolds applies pressure to a local detective, John Wayne Asher (John Ashton of "Beverly Hills Cop"),to track Billy down and return his loot. Neither Reynolds nor Asher can stand each other. Imagine Billy's predicament when he discovers he cannot buy a liver from the Juarez Cartel with their own money. He is trouble-prone and destined to disaster. "Death in Texas" would be a comedy if Billy's plight weren't so hopeless and his mother so sympathetic.
Windhauser divides this predictable but challenging film into five acts: Evil, Choices, Sorrow, Power, and Sacrifice. Performances are superlative. Stephen Lang of "Avatar" plays an unforgettable night nurse in Grace's ward, and their relationship adds another dimension to the metaphysics. Usually, Ronnie Gene Blevins has supporting roles, but he is thoroughly believable as an ex-convict with an attitude. The character of Billy Walker changes over the course of this one hour and forty-one-minute melodrama. Walker compensates for his evil with a supreme act of sacrifice. Altogether, "Death in Texas" is about a son's love for his mother. Windhauser raises three questions. What would a son do to save his mom's life? How far would he go? Finally, would he be prepared to put his life on the line for his mother?