Criterion Review: ONE FALSE MOVE (4K-UHD)

The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.

Following up last year’s release of Carl Franklin’s great Devil in a Blue Dress, Criterion has gone back to the well with Franklin’s excellent debut film One False Move. That’s a hell of a pair of films for any director to have anywhere on their resume, much less at the beginning. One False Move is a movie bursting with raw energy on both sides of the camera. It’s a first-rate crime thriller unafraid to go dark places and come back with more than just shocks, but sharply observed truths about people on both sides of the law.

Following a night of murder in search of money and drugs, a trio of criminals hightail out of Los Angeles on their way to Texas to unload their loot. The three are Ray (Billy Bob Thornton), the short-tempered leader of the pack; Pluto (Michael Beach), a quiet psychopath prone to bursts of extreme violence; and Fantasia (Cynda Williams), the only one of the group with a conscience. The trio is so reckless in their crimes and plans that it feels like only a matter of time before they get themselves caught. Ray, Pluto, and Fantasia are already desperate when we meet them and that feeling only intensifies as they make more mistakes.

Also not prone to mistakes are the men tasked with catching these killers. LAPD Detectives Cole (Jim Metzler) and McFeely (Earl Billings) catch the case in LA and eventually link up with Dale “Hurricane” Dixon (Bill Paxton), the police chief of Star City, Arkansas. Like Fantasia, Hurricane doesn’t quite fit in with his big city partners.

The movie is a crackling crime story, with Franklin consistently finding compelling ways to present the action. In the opening robbery scenes, there’s a harrowing shot of one of the victims, recorded earlier that night, dancing on the TV while violence unfolds in the room. Franklin doesn’t show things simply to shock viewers, but spends time showing everyone in their quieter moments so that when they resort to drastic measures, it carries real weight. You can’t call it a fall from grace exactly, it’s more like Franklin is catching these people at the moments they lose pieces of their souls.

The clarity of the characters’ actions and rationale creates a sense of inevitability to the film. Obviously, viewers know that a killers versus cops showdown is looming and will be hip to the thriller plot mechanics, but it’s hard to prepare for the emotional impact these inevitabilities will have on the characters and viewers when they happen. That’s a testament to the film’s script, written by Thornton and Tom Epperson, and Franklin’s direction. 

For as frank and confrontational as the film’s violence is, the most indelible moments are often the conversations between characters. Pluto is a man of few words, and Beach brings the kind of intensity that does all the talking for the character. When he does speak, it’s often to deliver shiver-inducing lines of dialogue.

The film saves most of its best moments, however, for Hurricane. At first, he comes across as a small-town bumpkin who’s just excited to be part of the team. Paxton plays the part with the energetic chutzpah he built his career on. But as the script and Paxton peel back the layers of Hurricane, it becomes clear that he may have the most demons of all. To go back to the idea of inevitability, you could argue that Hurricane is the one who set the story in motion years before with decisions he made on the job. Paxton is absolutely incredible in the role, dare I say it’s his best work. He’s funny, charming, and entirely devastating. My favorite scene in the film is when Cole and McFeely are eating breakfast in a dinner, cracking a relentless stream of jokes about Hurricane and his aspirations, without realizing Hurricane has overheard most of what their saying. Paxton leans into the silent awkwardness of this moment, showing the hurt on Hurricane’s face to the audience while playing it straight-faced for the detectives. It’s a lovely bit of physical performance that doesn’t need any words.

Matching Paxton’s performance is Williams, who goes toe to toe with him in the film’s best moments. Fantasia may not be physically intimidating as her counterparts, but she has the fire to match their intensity. With Williams and Paxton anchoring their sides of the story, it’s no surprise their scenes together take the film to its highest heights. If Hurricane is the movie’s heart, then Fantasia is its soul.

With a storied history as a film that was once destined for a straight-to-video release before being championed by Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, this underseen gem gets a worthy release from Criterion in 4K UHD and Blu-ray. The film looks and sounds better than ever. The sound design is a particular standout. Gun shots and screams are stark and unsettling, but the highlight is the ambient background sounds. The Los Angeles-set scenes capture the hustle and bustle of big city life, while the Arkansas scenes are full of crickets, dogs, and birds. These sounds are clear without being intrusive and draw you deeper into the film.

The supplemental features are a bit sparse, with an old commentary from Franklin ported over from past releases. The highlight of these features is a half-hour conversation between Franklin and Thornton that offers a deep dive into the making of the film. The most interesting part is Franklin recalling Cynda Williams’ impromptu audition in a dinner that ultimately helped her land the part of Fantasia. All in all, this release is highly recommended because the film itself is just that damn good. Hardly a groundbreaking thing to say about a Criterion release, but One False Move is the kind of film that could easily be lost to time (and it’s only 30 years old!) and benefits exponentially from entering the collection. 

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