One False Move

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One False Move is the result of Carl Franklin’s realisation, aged 37, that acting wasn’t enough for him and that what he really wanted to be was a director. In 1986 he went back to college to study directing, then worked for two years knocking out pile-em-high product for Roger Corman.

He got given his head with this 1991 movie. In terms of plot it’s something like a road movie. Three drugs desperadoes steal a load of money and cocaine in LA, then head to Arkansas, where at least two of them grew up. En route they kill more people, dodge cops and swap one hot car for another. On they press towards their destination, unaware that two LA cops have the edge on them and are waiting for them, an unwanted welcoming party.

The three are the hotheaded, dim and violent leader, Ray (Billy Bob Thornton), his sassy girlfriend, Fantasia (Cynda Williams), and their cool, clever third wheel, Pluto (Michael Beach). On the other team: Dud Cole (Jim Metzler) and John McFeely (Earl Billings), two seasoned detectives from the big city who know what they’re doing. They’re joined by Dale Dixon (Bill Paxton), a local policeman almost hyperventilating with excitement because something is actually happening in his little town.

These are the main players, and the screenplay, by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson, takes pains to sketch the characters of all concerned. We get a sense not just of who these people are, but who their families, neighbours and friends are too. Fantasia has a son, abandoned at home while she was off gallivanting with Ray. We get to meet him. Dale has a wife, also introduced and given something to do. Local police deputies are named and have characters. We meet the locals. When eateries are visited, food is eaten and it looks good – McFeely likes his home cooking.

From the opening shot – nighttime, shadowy streets, a car slowly slinking to a standstill and a woman getting out to the trembling of a slide guitar – it’s established that we’re in the territory of film noir. This is femme fatale Fantasia, dangerous on account of her sexiness.

It’s Fantasia who makes the “one false move” right at the beginning of the film, by failing to tell Ray and Pluto that a child has survived the bloody clean-up at the drug den they’ve just invaded, a child who will later identify them.

Fantasia and Ray
Fantasia and Ray

This isn’t entirely a character-driven film. Fate plays a hand. Fate intertwined with race – while Ray paws his woman, Fantasia, Pluto is casting a cool eye over her too. Ray is white, Fantasia is black, as is Pluto. As for the cops, Cole is white, McFeely black, and Dixon, when he joins up with the other two in an unequal partnership, is essentially an Arkansas redneck in a cop uniform. There’s a race dynamic in both groups though Franklin keeps this on a low simmer until letting it boil over as the film enters its bloody climax and I enter spoiler territory. It’s on Wikipedia if you really must know.

Slick, moving at speed and telling a second story in shadowplay as it doles out bulletins on the progress of Ray and co versus the cops, One False Move is a case of film-school savvy meeting Cormanesque smarts meeting Franklin’s talent. It’s a brutally efficient movie that repeatedly establishes, consolidates and then moves on. We meet the bad guys, get to know them, then meet the cops in LA, then on to Dale Dixon. Back to the bad guys for further fleshing out of character, then the good guys, then Dixon, etcetera.

Each actor comes at his character with one trait uppermost in their performance. Thornton’s Ray is crazed, Fantasia is needy, Pluto calculating, McFeely homely, Cole efficient and Dixon eager (though, as time will reveal, he’s too eager in some directions and not eager enough in others).

Peter Haycock (formerly of the Climax Blues Band) provides the similarly lean and efficient slide-guitar soundtrack. It’s evocative and bristly, reminiscent of the sort of work Ry Cooder was doing on movies about this time. James L Carter sweats over the sultry visuals. Together with Thornton and Epperson’s screenplay, they deliver a movie designed for the straight-for-video market, but which got a theatrical release after good word of mouth. It even made it onto a few “best of the year” lists.

One False Move – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2024

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