Every year, my wife and I have a tradition of sharing new films with each other on our respective birthdays. Earlier this year, I introduced her to the 1992 thriller One False Move. My wife and I don’t always see eye to eye when it comes to film. In fact, before the film started she asked me with a dose of skepticism, “Why are we watching this?” I replied, “I want to see if it holds up.” 102 minutes later I can confirm it did and I may have even converted my wife to its fandom.
One False Move is one of the best thrillers I have ever seen. It is tense, taut, moody, full of great performance and builds up to a climax that is nothing short of breathtaking. I was introduced to the film by my previously mentioned “Godfathers of Film Criticism,” Gene Siskel & Roger Ebert. They were champions of the film, which never got a significant theatrical release. Siskel declared it the best film of 1992 and Ebert had it #2 on his best ten list of that year. Additionally, Siskel famously told a story about being approached by Bruce Springsteen at a party to proclaim his own love of the film.
The film starts in Los Angeles where we see a birthday party slowly escalate into a blood bath courtesy of a dangerous trio of criminals. The trio consists of the hothead, Ray (Billy Bob Thornton, who also co-wrote the script), his impressionable girlfriend, Fantasia (Cynda Williams) and the brainy and vicious Pluto (Michael Beach). A pair of LAPD detectives (Jim Metzler and Earl Billings) quickly discover the crew is eventually headed to Star City, Arkansas. In preparation, they share a very colorful conference call with the small town’s enthusiastic sheriff, Dale “Hurricane” Dixon (played on the nose by Bill Paxton).
The detectives travel to Star City to further their investigation and soak up the quaint local color. “Hurricane” is star-struck by the big city cops and tries to impress them with his own take on law enforcement. The remainder of the film is a waiting game as secrets are revealed, specifically the sheriff’s connection to the killers, and all fates are decided in an unavoidably violent showdown.
The film is masterfully directed by Carl Franklin, who would go on to critical success with films like Devil in a Blue Dress and Out of Time. Most recently, he has been steadily directing popular TV series like “House of Cards,” “The Affair,” and “Ray Donavan.” But One False Move is definitely Mr. Franklin’s lasting achievement in my eye. As mentioned earlier, its moody, tense but also has moments of humor needed to break the tension. There are no big flourishes or cinematic embellishments aside from the use of harmonica leading up to the climax. Franklin keeps things simple and lets the characters and their actions speak from themselves. Two scenes in particular deserve highlighting.
“Hurricane” approaches one of the detectives and expresses his interest in “a shot at the big time” as a fellow LAPD detective. In a diner the next day, the two detectives discuss the matter and have a few laughs at the expense of the perceived local yokel. What they don’t realize is that “Hurricane” has entered halfway through their dismissal and heard more than enough. Paxton displays the sheriff’s disappointment without overstating his embarrassment and Franklin stages the scene casually like a scene you might walk by in real life.
A tenser scene is on display when we see the fugitives on the road being trailed by a highway patrolman, who is responding to their description from a law enforcement bulletin. They are doing what they can to stay calm and not attract any additional attention while they are being tailed. Michael Beach’s Pluto states sinisterly, “We're going to be cool and play it by ear. We won't kill him unless we have to.” Franklin cuts to a wide shot at just the right time when the scene reaches its inevitable violent conclusion.
Comparisons to classics like In Cold Blood and Bonnie and Clyde are not unwarranted. This is a first rate American crime thriller. You also get an early glimpse at Billy Bob Thornton’s talents as both an explosive performer and gifted writer (it’s hard to not be reminded of his recent work in TV’s Fargo). And you are also reminded of the very talented actor we lost with Bill Paxton’s passing last year.