The Stand at Paxton County, which is currently playing on Netflix, opens with an ominous title card warning us that what we’re about to see is “based on a true story.”
I may be alone in this but I find the term “based on a true story” to be fascinating. It’s signifies that the film that we’re about to watch was inspired by something that actually happened but it’s not actually a recreation of that event. It’s an invitation to watch and to try to figure out how much is true and how much is just a product of a screenwriter’s imagination. “Based on a true story” is a real cinematic tease.
The Stand at Paxton County tells the story of Janna Connelly (Jacqueline Toboni), an army medic who is still haunted by her memories of serving in Afghanistan. When her rancher father, Dell (Michael O’Neill), has a heart attack, Janna returns home to Paxton County, North Dakota. What she discovers is that, after she left home, the ranch fell into disrepair. Dell only has one ranch hand, a seemingly amiable doofus named Brock (Greg Perrow) and it doesn’t appear that Brock’s been doing a very good job.
When Sheriff Bostwick (Christopher McDonald) shows up to do a compliance check on the ranch, he finds a lot of problems. When he returns with a cold-eyed veterinarian named Dr. Morel (Marwa Bernstein), Dell is informed that his ranch is in such disrepair that the sheriff can take away his livestock and essentially put Dell out of business!
How can the sheriff get away with this, Janna asks. Dell explains that, years ago, the voters of the state voted down a proposition that would have given law enforcement the right to confiscate a rancher’s livestock. However, a bunch of unelected lobbyists and left-wing activists went ahead and forced the law through the state legislature! Now, the sheriff can pretty much do whatever he wants and anyone who tries to stand up for their Constitutional rights is subject to harassment and perhaps even murder!
While all of this is going on, Brock vanishes from the ranch. It turns out that Brock is a professional bad employee who goes from ranch to ranch and goes out of his way to mess things up so that the ranchers lose their livestock. The livestock is then sold to the highest bidder or sometimes the sheriff will just keep a horse for himself. With Brock gone, Janna hires sexy Matt (Tyler Jacob Moore) to be the new ranch hand and then sets out to get justice for her father.
I had mixed feelings about The Stand at Paxton County. On the one hand, I’m not a fan of the government regulation in general and I’m always happy to watch a libertarian-themed film. Christopher McDonald’s smug and corrupt sheriff felt like a stand-in for all of the authoritarian-minded politicians and bureaucrats who have recently come out of the woodwork and used the COVID-19 pandemic to increase their own power. (“Hey, it’s Clay Jenkins!” I said as soon as the sheriff showed up.) So, on that level, I enjoyed the film.
Unfortunately, The Stand at Paxton County doesn’t just stick to criticizing the government for overstepping their authority. Instead, it also portrays animal rights activists as being a part of a sinister financial conspiracy and that’s where it lost me. It’s a lot easier to buy into the idea of a corrupt sheriff than it is to imagine the head of the PSCA sitting in a darkened war room and ordering his minions to torment one rancher, all so he can resell the rancher’s livestock. That doesn’t mean that activists should be immune from criticism or that there isn’t a legitimate argument to be made that even well-intentioned regulations are vulnerable to abuse. But the film’s portrayal of its central conspiracy just got a bit too cartoonish to be effective. Once the villains went from being smug to being downright evil, it became impossible to take the movie seriously. If the film had simply stuck to criticizing government overreach instead of imagining a shadowy conspiracy, it would have been a lot more effective.
The Stand at Paxton County has some lovely shots of the North Dakota countryside and Christopher McDonald is a wonderfully smarmy villain. I always appreciate a film that has an anti-authoritarian subtext but The Stand At Paxton County is ultimately dragged down by its own heavy hand.