One False Move is what you might get if you settled an Elmore Leonard plot down in the contemporary South, and if you were clear-sighted enough–both humane enough and wearily experienced enough, as director Carl Franklin is–to find all the tragic realism there. The movie is layered but unshowy, content to follow the consequences of its crime plot in an easy, naturalistic way as the story leads where it will. Franklin’s characters are types, and they work in the way–per our own Grant Nebel–that Michael Mann’s characters work, because Franklin “has the discipline and thoroughness to imagine what these characters are like, how they will act, what their past was like, how they will dress, how they will speak.” Franklin doesn’t have any of these people defy their essential types; instead, the depth comes from how thoroughly he understands those types. (In some cases, crucially, he understands them in a way a white director probably wouldn’t or couldn’t.)
So we have a brutal crime–the violence all the worse for the sheer ordinariness of it, for the lack of imagination; this is just the flat punctuation of one body hurting another–committed by three people. They’re Ray (Billy Bob Thornton), the loose cannon, mean, stupid, and volatile; Fantasia/Lila (Cynda Williams), Ray’s girlfriend, the terrorized and terrified accomplice to a man she fears and possibly even loves too much to break away from (and how many options would she have, if she did?); and Pluto (Michael Beach), the unblinking professional who should never have gotten hooked up with these two in the first place. On the run after their robbery-murder, looking for a place to sell their stolen drugs and take shelter, they drift towards Star City, Arkansas, as the cops suspected they would. The cops–seasoned LAPD officers, affable and hard-nosed–link up with the town’s “good old boy” sheriff, Dale Dixon (Bill Paxton). Dale–also affectionately called Hurricane by most of the town–is good-natured, enthusiastic, chatty, and almost completely free of self-awareness. He’s offhanded with his ingrained prejudices and unable to see that the LA cops don’t take him seriously. He’s psychologically innocent in a specific, blinkered, morally complex way that makes this one of Paxton’s best performances.
All of these people collide in revealing ways. Sometimes the situation they’re in starts small, as when Ray, Lila, and Pluto get pulled over on their way to Star City: you can guess how differently they react to that, who knows how to appease and de-escalate, who is cautious, who can’t suppress bristling hostility. Sometimes it’s not just the characters’ lives but the meaning of their lives at stake. Whatever it is, it always matters–and so do their choices, which Franklin and his actors portray honestly.
One False Move is streaming on the Criterion Channel.