Released in 1991, One False Move is a film that may not necessarily have been on your radar. But to those who know it, it is much revered. And with good reason. So it comes as a very warm arrival in the Criterion Collection and gets a wonderful, beautiful transfer UK release.
As three criminals Ray (Billy Bob Thornton), Pluto (Michael Beach) and Fantasia (Cynda Williams) rip off and kill a drug-dealer they find themselves pursued by the LA police department. Learning that the trio are fleeing to Star City, Arkansas they call local chief of police Dale ‘Hurricane’ Dixon (Bill Paxton). Excited by the chance of a big case landing in his lap, Dale’s eagerness could serve the case well, if he wasn’t so gung ho.
The most remarkable thing about One False Move is the way in which it never allows you to settle. It is a film that toys with you, like a sadistic child with a trapped bug, it leaves you constantly on edge. As a result it is an utterly gripping delight.
Director Carl Franklin allows the sometimes languid pace to unfold naturally. And just when you think you know where it’s going he injects it with scenes of jaw-dropping violence. It’s character driven neo-noir, where everyone we meet holds an ace up their sleeve and a festering skeleton in their closet. The brilliance of it is the way that every character, even those on the periphery of the story, feel fleshed out, lived in and easy to pick-out of a line-up.
Co-writers Thorton and Tom Epperson conjure something so hard boiled and baked in Southern drawl it is transportive. It’s never a whodunnit, but it somehow manages to create mystery and, more than anything, hard hitting tension. Occasionally it touches on ideas of racism but it does so in an incredibly delicate and therefore all the more provocative manner. The brilliance is seeing two groups of people, the cops and the criminals, both of them made up of various colours, and letting the different, incredibly richly painted characters, bounce off each other.
Essential to this are the performances. As a co-writer of the film it is testament to Billy-Bob Thornton that he would look to play such a deplorable character as Ray. He’s a quick to fly off the handle character, one often skin-crawling to behold and yet, there are times you almost feel sorry for him such is his obvious intellectual inferiority to his partners in crime. Michael Beach is mesmerising as Pluto, a criminal mastermind whose intellect often feels like a burden given the situation he’s in if it weren’t for his clear psychopathic tendencies. Williams certainly brings an ethereal hypnotic quality to the film but there is something about her character that never quite feels fleshed-out. As the story unfolds this makes more sense but early on it’s a ambiguous if she’s involved in the crimes or more of a hostage.
But One False Move really does belong to the late, great Bill Paxton. His Hurricane is such a memorable character. Brimming with energy and excitement in the first two acts and bringing a sense of tragic realisation in the final act that, due to the groundwork laid previously, you ache for the predicament he finds himself in. It’s such a powerful performance and such a brilliantly written character it feels like something lifted from a Coen Brothers’ film and perfectly transplanted into this world.
A poignant, powerful, often funny and always gripping gem of a film, One False Move is exactly why The Criterion Collection should be resoundingly celebrated.