The temptation is to go too far and proclaim "One False Move," which opens today at the Charles, a masterpiece, the best movie of the year, blah blah blah. Of course it isn't. But it's a hell of a movie.
The picture almost slipped into oblivion, and much praise goes to Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, who championed the movie on their nationally syndicated television show, and pretty much invented its life ever since.
This is exactly the sort of film Hollywood has forgotten how to make: the small-scale, extremely tense, character-driven thriller, so bitingly authentic that in its last few moments, when its antagonists come together, guns drawn, and you know that someone's going to die, it's heartbreaking. You believe in the characters, good and bad, and you will grieve their loss, good and bad.
It's of a small sub-genre that might be called "country noir," which takes the nihilism and violence of the city and deposits it in some bucolic pasture with devastating results. "Bad Day at Black Rock" is perhaps the sine qua non of such works; but now "One False Move" threatens to replace it.
The setting is Star City, Ark., where local Sheriff Dale "Hurricane" Dixon would spend the rest of his days jawing with the boys down at the cafe over hot coffee and doughnuts, and locking up the odd miscreant, the loud drunk or the wife beater, on weekends. But no: on their way to Dale City are three losers with guns and the will to use them, a white trash tattoo museum called Ray (Billy Bob Thornton who co-wrote the script); Pluto (Michael Beach), a chillingly remote stud with a knife; and Fantasia (Cynda Williams), who is beautiful and confused. Their specialty is ripping off drug dealers; and in the movie's horrifying opening moments we watch as they wipe out a birthday party.
They are the scariest of the scary: Far from master criminals, they're sloppy, impulsive, mean and stupid, like the Dick and Perry of Capote's "In Cold Blood"; they have no place on the moral compass, except for Fantasia. She's the film's best character; one feels her regret and her helplessness. A drug addict, she despises what she's become; yet she's powerless to stop it, and when she has to, she'll kill, too. Williams manages to capture this ambivalence and sense of fragile denial exquisitely.
Hurricane is played by Bill Paxton, an agreeable smaller presence in many bigger films (most famously, he was the cowardly corporal in "Aliens 2"). In the early going, he's like a big sloppy dog and when two shrewd L.A. detectives come to town, he slobbers and throws himself at them like an eager pup. (The two are played with exquisite world-weariness by Jim Metzler and Earl Billings.) But ultimately, he manages to bring it together when he realizes it's not like it is on TV.
Director Carl Franklin manipulates these strands with vivid brio, aided immeasurably by the cleverly plotted script from Thornton and Tom Epperson. I love the way every little bit of information is used, and how what seems so obvious and straightforward in the beginning is ultimately revealed to be part of a more complex order, particularly with regard to Dale and Fantasia.
"One False Move" doesn't make a single false move its own self: It's as tough and gripping as they come. It's the first movie I've seen in months where, when I was walking out, I thought to myself, "Damn! I wanna see that one again!"
'One False Move'
Starring Bill Paxton and Cynda Williams.
Directed by Carl Franklin.
Released by IRS Releasing.