Carl Franklin is a local guy (born in Richmond, went to Cal) who among other things directed Devil With a Blue Dress, a fine film I watched earlier this year. One False Move came three years before Devil, and while it did little at the box office, it got attention from critics, including Siskel and Ebert, and now seems like the film that really launched Franklin into our consciousness. I saw it when it came out and remembered it being tough and good, but I hadn't thought much about it since then. Criterion recently released a new 4K Blu-ray, which seemed like a good excuse to reacquaint myself. I'm glad I did.
One False Move begins and ends with seriously disturbing violent scenes, but what transpires is a character study with lots of subtle social context. It begins in Los Angeles with some murders driven by drugs and money. A couple of L.A. cops are sent to a small town in Arkansas, where the killers are reportedly headed. The contrast between the big city and the rural South provides some of that context. The three killers are made up of one white man (Billy Bob Thornton, who also co-wrote), a black woman (Cynda Williams) and a black man (Michael Beach). The L.A. cops are one black, one white. And the rural South always has undercurrents of racism. The local police chief (Bill Paxton) casually tosses off the n-word (his wife apologizes for him, saying it's just how he was raised). Paxton initially plays the chief as a bit of a yokel, quite excited about working on a big-city crime.
Things are more complicated than they seem, and the film gets better the deeper we get into the characters, especially Paxton's chief and the three killers. The acting is powerful across the board ... Paxton is always good, of course, Cynda Williams makes you wonder why her career never seemed to take off, and it's fun to see Michael Beach 20+ years before he turned up in The 100. Everything about One False Move is a little better than you might expect, and by the end, you know you've seen something special.