Tuesday, July 12, 2011

One False Move (Carl Franklin, 1992)

One False Move, directed by Carl Franklin from Billy Bob Thornton's first and best screenplay, is a moral thriller and neo-noir posing as a simple cops-and-robbers action movie. It opens with a horrifying, virtuosic killing spree in L.A. as a trio of criminals—sloppy, unhinged Ray (Thornton); calm, psychopathic Pluto (Michael Beach); and Ray's gentler but still complicit girlfriend Fantasia (Cynda Williams)—viciously murder six to get their hands on a pile of cash and a small hill of cocaine. But Fantasia's minor act of conscience sets in motion a case that stretches across the country, uniting the unlikeliest of threads in a fantastically paced narrative with complex, human characters.

Look at the way we meet Dale Dixon, a sheriff far away from the grisly murder scene, in Star City, Ark.: though the film cuts away to him via the brilliantly scary match of a screaming child in the first sequence, our true introduction to the character comes in the form of a phone call the LAPD makes to him after clues point them in the direction of Star City. Bill Paxton, mostly off-camera, establishes his character with aplomb, his fast-talking simplicity revealing an insecurity and open desire to ingratiate himself with big city cops. We also get a taste of his oafishness but also his drive. We later learn that townsfolk call him "Hurricane," which may reference either the blustering hot wind he puffs out in gales or his energetic In-person, Paxton only deepens Dixon's clumsy but capable sheriff, the character's unlikely balance of stereotyping and originality a microcosm for the film's broader overview of this Arkansas town and the storm working its way there from Los Angeles.

Thornton's screenplay does have its fun out in Star City, from a "Who's on first?" routine Dixon has with Ray's half-deaf, bumpkin uncle to Dixon's own aw-shucks goofiness around the two L.A. detectives he wants so badly to impress. In the aforementioned phone call, Franklin juxtaposes the large, professional office where the L.A. cops sit and the tiny shack that it is the Star City police office, a place so laughably tiny and obsolete the hissing and chirping of crickets buzz all around its empty surroundings. Compared to the horrifying 10-minute setpiece in L.A. that opens the film in bewildering ultraviolence, the drunken rambunctiousness and casual domestic disputes seem quaint despite the seriousness of the crimes that Dixon tends to sort out without busting anyone.

Nevertheless, Thornton and Franklin not only deepen their view of the South, they do so without resorting to easy clichés of glamorizing the simple life. Instead, they chip away at Dixon and his surroundings, not only bringing out an unexpected intelligence and grace but hidden secrets that connect the characters and complicate their pasts. Dixon has an easygoing relationship with everyone in town, save a black child who causes him to stare silently and uncomfortably whenever he sees the boy. Does the child bring out Dixon's latent racism, a charge potentially supported by his use of the n-word around McFreely, the black L.A. detective? Possibly, but that interpretation, I think, deliberately plays upon audience's expectations of the racist small-town hick; even Dixon's casual use of a racial slur seems less a revelation of prejudices than a mature display of vestigial social programming.

Indeed, race almost feels like an appendix in this movie, a relic of a bygone, unevolved age that can nevertheless flare up painfully. The film is tacit in its establishing of interracial bonds, from Ray and Fantasia's relationship to the partnerships of Ray/Pluto and Cole/McFreely; for that matter, McFreely's surname suggests interracial coupling in his own family tree. The blurring of race relations shows progress without it being paraded around by the filmmakers as an accomplishment, but ingrained tensions come to the fore in key scenes and dialogue exchanges: Fantasia may be the least guilty of the three criminals, but she knows she "looks guilty" and will get destroyed by a jury, while Dixon's own past comes back to both haunt and motivate him in the final stretch.

In true Southern fashion, the more the film settles into its location, the more relaxed it gets. But Franklin never lets the tension nor the engaging flow of the character development sag. His direction puts the characters front and center but also shows off his framing talents: I don't know that the interior lights of cars have been so beautiful and haunting than they are in a scene where a suspicious patrolman tails and finally (and fatefully) pulls over the murderous trio. The lights illuminate both car interiors entirely, plainly visible islands in the darkness. The effect is isolating and vulnerable, its equal exposure noticeably suggesting that the cop is as naked in this situation as the criminals. Franklin later precedes the climax with a gently paced but tension-raising series of edits that feel like a Southern-fried Leone standoff, complete with edgy harmonica. The climax itself is one final burst of violence that is as over as soon as it starts but shakes one past the credits. Franklin displays a skill with gore not unlike that of late-career David Cronenberg, the talent of showing violence at its most plain and vicious without fetishizing the image.

I first heard about One False Move by surfing old Siskel & Ebert videos online; I can't remember what they said about it, but I'll never forget the tone of their support. It was the same sort of fierce, almost personal advocacy that showed them at their best, the kind they exhibited to even greater extent with their borderline-Crusade for Hoop Dreams. It topped Siskel's year-end list and came second on Ebert's, and I can't say I fault their decisions. One False Move was anything but a hit upon its release, and I haven't met that many people who've seen it in the intervening years, but this neo-noir moral drama may well end up on my list of the best films of the '90s. It's certainly one of the smartest, least exploitative films about the South I've ever seen.

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