Forgotten Gems: One False Move (****1/2) is the Promise of a Future

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One False Move – 1992

Director Carl Franklin
Screenplay Billy Bob Thornton, Tom Epperson
Starring Bill Paxton, Cynda Williams, Billy Bob Thornton, Michael Beach, Earl Billings, Jim Metzler

One False Move is now seen as somewhat of a jumping off point in the career of Billy Bob Thornton. It is here we saw his first foray into writing after a young career of playing under-achievers. At the time, it was viewed, rightly, as a sort of graduation to the big time for actor turned director Carl Franklin.

In the process we see some evidence of relative inexperience with perspective. The arrival of Ray and Pluto to the party at the start of the film is an example. Awkward dancing, people plopped in front of another view, back to awkward dancing. It’s in this first act, however that we see his true skill. Tasked with seeking a young child that has been left undetected and must be taken care of, we see the child found, standing, whimpering in a back room. This little boy seems to be doomed as the lens begins to focus on him. The moment we think the dam is about to burst on his young life, the imagery changes to halfway across the country, to a different kind of childhood experience. It is an unforgettable experience that never fails to bring strong emotions.

The story starts in Los Angeles, where Fantasia (Williams) is an accessory to a drug robbery and 6 murders. The killers are her boyfriend Ray (Thornton) and Pluto (Beach). Ray is a blunt object, who seems only to know about 30 words, but uses them often. Pluto is more deliberate and obviously intelligent. He is the one with the plans for the ill-gotten loot. When things start to go bad, Ray thinks immediately of the small sum of cash and Pluto reveals the shortsighted nature of his thinking. Fantasia wants to go back home, and her partners seem to be agreeable to that idea, after they achieve a few things on a cross-country trip.

Police in Los Angeles quickly determine the three as suspects, though, and they determine through evidence left behind where it is that Fantasia is headed. They head there first and discover the small town of Star City has a sheriff (Paxton) of boundless energy and seemingly questionable intelligence. The interplay between Sheriff Dale “Hurricane” Dixon and his big city counterparts plays out differently than one would expect. Sure, Dixon is a good man who has a handle on what danger is for his part of the world. He seems to have little to no clue the horrors that are headed his way, though. And the fact that he hasn’t drawn his gun in 6 years doesn’t convince the L.A. cops that they want his help when the assailants arrive.

The contrast of the relationships of both sides of the law as the tension ratchets upon their pending convergence is handled expertly. The circumstances of the trio who are fleeing are such that we have sympathy for Fantasia, even as she descends from accomplice to full-fledged killer. It is a carefully layered evolution that never lets the viewer have the easy position, even as we move towards the conclusion.

Dixon is an equally complex character. Lingering looks give a hint to depth behind relatively innocent actions early on. As the moment draws near, we understand that the title of the movie plays a heavy role in a tragedy of Thomas Hardy-like proportions. This is the Bill Paxton performance, above all others, that made me a fan. Never before or since have I seen an actor who conveyed so much with his eyes.

There is a scene in a restaurant in the second act that brings every gift Paxton has to the fore. He stumbles across the Los Angeles policemen having a conversation over breakfast. That conversation is cruelly about him and their impressions of him as a true bumpkin of the highest order. Having made the mistake of confiding in one of the two earlier, that confidence is shattered, and he still has to work with these two. Everything shows in those eyes. And it isn’t even his best scene in the film.

Truly, this movie is Paxton’s finest two hours. He is shown in every light: a flawed hero yet to be tested. He’s doubted by those he admires, takes those who value him for granted. He has greatness in him, and secrets in his past that could destroy everything. Franklin is smart enough to realize that as good as the script is, Paxton is the best interpreter of the message Thornton and Epperson are trying to convey.

The script is a great one. The border of right and wrong is drawn obviously between factions, when in truth there is a lot of gray.

A few of the film’s drawbacks:

  • The limited variety of curse words (“God Damn It!” is used numerous times).
  • There are times when you can’t tell the difference between the person holding a VHS camera’s angle and that of the cinematographer.
  • The actors, even Billy Bob, just aren’t that good.

Overall, the film is a story that transcends time.  As Levon Helm stated in The Band’s remake of Springsteen’s Atlantic City, “There’s winners and there’s losers / And I’m south of the line…” One False Move shows us how the pieces move on either side of that line.

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