One False Move is a crime thriller less interested in the crime itself but rather the people involved. But calling it, a crime thriller feels like cheating the movie, in a way. It starts out about a brutal drug deal but, by the end, has transformed into a twisted, tragic melodrama.
Carl Franklin directs the movie with such a subtle but straightforward style and bold confidence that it’s almost impossible not to get caught up in its spell. One False Move is only his third film, and already he seems at ease and assured in his direction. So much so that for a man whose next movie would be the impeccable Devil in a Blue Dress, an adaptation of a Walter Mosley novel, he is sadly little talked about amongst modern movie fans.
It is a rare example of a movie following all the familiar beats but never behaves in an unfamiliar fashion. Whether it’s the framing of shots by cameraman James L. Carter or the editing of Carole Kravetz, One False Move bounces along with a rhythm all its own. One False Move feels alive in its presentation and structure, all the while skillfully coiling the tension as these characters slowly and inevitably grow closer to an inevitable climactic showdown.
Franklin opens the movie with a disturbing scene of violence as we are introduced to three of the core characters. There’s Lila (Cynda Williams), known to her friends as Fantasia, Ray (Billy Bob Thorton), and Lane (Michael Beach), who has the odd nickname of Pluto. They rob and murder a local drug dealer, steal his money and cocaine, and are off to Houston to sell the drugs and split the profits.
Detectives Dudely Cole (Jim Metzler) and John McFeely (Earl Billings), both LAPD, are soon hot on their heels as they suspect they are heading to Star City, Arkansas, to meet up with Ray’s uncle. There we meet the local Sheriff, a charming, energetic good ol’ boy Dale (Bill Paxton) who has never had to draw his gun. Suffice to say, by the end of the movie; he will be forced to draw his weapon.
The script by Billy Bob Thorton and Tom Epperson draws these characters out in exciting and unique ways. The characters have a way of switching gears with one another. They go from making small talk to being abruptly honest. Franklin wisely reads the silences on the page and ushers the characters into scenes in which they are allowed to flourish, and by the end, we have forgotten the crime and become absorbed by these people, wondering what will become of them.
One False Move keeps a steady tempo, slowly building up steam as Ray, Lila, and Lane draw closer and closer to Star City, where the Detectives and Dale anxiously try and figure out when they will arrive. Franklin cuts back and forth but always in such a way that keeps the tension taught; even in scenes that are meant to be light-hearted, there is the looming threat of the oncoming storm to this peaceful town.
Thornton, in his little rat-tail, is a pitch-perfect self-conscious scumbag. He can’t help but love Lila as the two see themselves as Bonnie and Clyde but are, in reality, Sid & Nancy. Williams is charming and wry as a woman who is never completely honest with any of her companions but is trapped by her own decisions and desires.
Beach’s Pluto is a fascinating creation of a cool, calm, collected, violent man. Of the murders committed initially, the ones committed by Pluto are the most unnerving because of his relaxed meticulous attitude. He is the wild card, yet he is the one who is always on Ray to keep his cool and is always thinking ahead.
The irony, of course, is that these three are doomed from the start simply because they are the type of people who should not be together. With his impulsive violent, drug-addled personality, Ray is sure to screw up somewhere along the line. Lila’s resolve, mixed with her growing indecision of staying with Ray or going home to Star City, creates more tension than the group can maintain. For a man supposedly so intelligent, it is a tremendous poetic irony that Pluto should tie his fate to such an emotionally explosive pair.
But the real star is Paxton’s Dale. Sheriff Dale is a kind-hearted, eager to please, man. It’s impossible to tell if Dale’s jitteriness comes from excitement or nervousness, but in Paxton’s hands, it comes off as both. Dale stands out in a career full of great performances, if only because he seems to be the embodiment of every other Paxton character but molded just right.
Dale is in awe of the big city police and even sees himself “joining uP” once this is all over. One night while the men are having dinner at Dale’s house, his wife, Cheryl (Natalie Canerday), confesses she’s scared. Dale seems “too” excited about this case. “Dale doesn’t know any better. He watches TV. I read nonfiction.”
Among all this, Franklin ties together these threads and slowly begins to pull them together. Before long, another connection is found between the murderous trio and Star City. A secret that once hinted at begins to shine a light on previous scenes.
Franklin understands there is a difference between movie violence and actual violence. He does not linger on the violent acts. The deaths in One False Move, while bloody, are not gory; they are often sudden and savage.
One False Move is a crime movie, yes, and a character piece. But it is also a clever look at race. Franklin, a Black man, isn’t interested in sweeping messages or anything like that. But he doesn’t shy away from everyday racism. Moments such as when Dale lets a racial slur slip at the dinner table in front of Detective McFeely. Billings’ reaction is subtle; he pauses but then moves on. Dale’s wife even apologizes for the incident to the white Detective Dudley.
Lila, a bi-racial woman, confesses in an argument with a former white partner that she’s Black enough to have sex with but not white enough to marry. Pluto is also Black, and maybe why he is with Ray on the long drive to Houston.
These issues simmer underneath the surface of One False Move. They do not dominate the film, but they do infuse it with an underlying foundation. It is there just under the text of the scene. Franklin refuses to ignore race, but he is also not interested in preaching about it.
Bit by bit, One False Move begins to hurtle towards its conclusion. Secrets are revealed, truths are doubted, and then the film ends the same way it started with startling violence, only this time there is an air of sadness and pain pungent in the air.
Towards the end, Dale and Lila are in a farmhouse while Detectives Dudley and McFeely are trying to find them. At the same time, Ray and Pluto are also looking for them. Franklin orchestrates this scene with Carter and Kravetz in a series of dazzling cuts and angles, all while a man plays the harmonica on a stump. It is quite simply brilliant and absorbing filmmaking.
The final scene is bursting with sadness, if only because Thorton’s and Epperson’s script was never about crime but about the people involved. Franklin understood this and made One False Move, a neo-noir where most of the shadows lie in the character’s souls.
Images courtesy of I.R.S. Releasing
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