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February 7, 2018

One False Move

by Franz Patrick


One False Move (1992)
★★★ / ★★★★

Ray (Billy Bob Thornton), Pluto (Michael Beach), and Fantasia (Cynda Williams) leave six dead bodies in Los Angeles with fifteen thousand dollars and several pounds of cocaine in their possession. Their plan is to drive to Star City, Arkansas and hide there until the cops are no longer hot on their tail. When Dixon (Bill Paxton), the chief of police, hears about those approaching to his territory, he is very eager to catch the criminals. He figures that since two cops from L.A. (Jim Metzler, Earl Billings) will be waiting with him, he can prove to them that he has what it takes to make it as a cop in the city.

“One False Move,” written by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson, is a thriller that is willing to take risks by taking its story in unexpected directions. The set-up is familiar: a group of people on the run and the police who are after them. But what is atypical is the screenplay’s penetrating look on the personalities and motivations behind those executing the law and the ones who choose to transgress it. Take away the shootings, stabbings, and suspicions and the film works as a character-driven drama.

A recurring theme is people being unexpectedly smart. For instance, Pluto is a former convict, busted for stealing and the like, so it is easy to assume that he must not be very smart. On the contrary, he is a college graduate with an I.Q. of 150. He is quiet most of the time. When he speaks, he does so with authority. When he moves from one point to another, we watch a hungry wild animal. We feel him thinking, trying to stay one step ahead of the police as well as his partners—it is becoming increasingly obvious that Ray and Fantasia have too much baggage. Another surprise is Chief Dixon. Just because he is a man of the law in a small town, thick Southern accent and all, does not mean he cannot do the job as well as the polished men in suits who are supposedly on top of everything.

Interestingly, the middle section is almost two different films. The events in Arkansas offer plenty of light humor. The attention is on Chief Dixon and his unwavering enthusiasm. Though those around him start to get annoyed, he is blind their reactions because the possibility of the trio arriving is the most exciting point in his career by far. We get the impression that his eagerness will be his downfall. Meanwhile, the road trip across Texas holds a level of suspense. It is not because we want the crooks to get away. Our concern is toward the people they interact with like a clerk at a gas station or a cop who stops by for a chat. They are so on the edge, especially volatile Ray, that every little thing is perceived as a potential threat.

The disparate tones are weaved together so elegantly, the spinning gears of the screenplay are hardly noticeable—with the exception of dialogues toward the end that sound oddly expository. “One False Move,” directed by Carl Franklin, concludes with inevitable shooting and stabbing. One or two scenes after the fact might have helped with the flow. Still, the film offers enough unexpected turns that a few of its shortcomings can be forgiven.

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