One False Move
Screenplay : Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1991
Stars : Bill Paxton (Dale "Hurricane" Dixon), Cynda Williams (Fantasia/Lila), Billy Bob Thornton (Ray Malcolm), Michael Beach (Pluto), Jim Metzler (Dud Cole), Earl Billings (McFeely)
The first ten minutes of "One False Move" feel like any other violent crime film, even bordering on entering the straight-to-video realm, which is ironic because the rest of the film is so sharp and original.
In the opening segment, three criminals, Roy (Billy Bob Thornton), Pluto (Michael Beach), and Roy's girlfriend Fantasia (Cynda Williams) disrupt a birthday party by stabbing, shooting or suffocating everyone in sight and making off with a suitcase full of cocaine to be sold to a friend in Houston. Director Carl Franklin never shies away from the violence, and these first few minutes hit you like a shot between the eyes, even though it's nothing you haven't seen before.
We are then introduced to Dud (Jim Metzler) and McFeely (Earl Billings), two hardened Los Angeles detectives who are put on the case. They have good reason to believe that the trio of criminals is headed to Star City, a small backwoods town in Arkansas. They meet up with Dale "Hurricane" Dixon (Bill Paxton), the local sheriff who's run the police department for six years and never even had to draw his gun. His most taxing activities include subduing the town drunk. Dale is an ambitious good old boy, and his diet of television cops and robbers makes him excited and anxious to get in on the "big city action" headed his way, much to the dismay of his homely wife.
What sets "One False Move" apart from other films of its sort is the superior screenplay by first time screenwriters Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson that gets better and better as the film progresses. Although it starts out in violent and fairly uninspired fashion, the story slowly builds and builds, adding layer upon layer and picking up steam as the priniciple characters are drawn together into the inevitable final confrontation.
While the main driving force behind the plot is fairly predictable, you cannot guess some of the complications that ensue, or the dark secrets of the past that are revealed. The film constantly keeps you on your toes, toying with your expectations and emotions. Not all the good characters are as good as they seem at first, and not all the bad characters are quite so bad. Nothing in life is simple, and Thornon and Epperson drew the characters in varying shades of gray, refusing to paint in black and white.
"One False Move" also benefits greatly from the performances. Bill Paxton, who I have always thought is one of America's most underrated actors, makes a great turn as the small town sheriff. When he's first introduced, he feels like a broad and simplistic caricature of Arkansas hickdom. However, Paxton gives the performance subtle textures, and there are things about him you never would have expected. He's anxious to be the big hero, but plot developments give him new and different motives that make him one of the most complex characters in the film.
Williams' Fantasia is the most moving character. She's a drug addict who doesn't like where she is or what she's doing, but she's too weak to escape the situation. As things get more and more out of hand, you can feel her being slowly dragged into a pit that she will never be able to escape from. In this way, she is the classic Shakespearean tragic figure, someone who could have been a good person under different circumstances.
Roy and Pluto, however, are as close to clearly drawn evil as the film gives us. Roy, unshaven and balding with a long pony-tail and an earring, is more or less the polar opposite of Pluto's well groomed, bespectacled intelligence. While Roy is rash and unthinking, much is made of Pluto's 160 IQ. Of course, both men are incredibly violent and thoughtless of human life, Roy doing his damage with a gun while Pluto opts to get more personal with a wickedly sharp knife.
"One False Move" is a surprisingly clever and well-crafted movie. It understands its characters and it knows its subjects. The film feels just as comfortable in the neon-lit Hollywood Hills as it does in the dusty, sun bleached dirt roads of rural Arkansas. It easily mixes the best aspects of crime noir with a penetrating character study. "One False Move" is an exhilirating film that is expertly written, deftly acted, and directed with a sharp sense of action, tone, and pacing.
©1997 James Kendrick