One False Move

One False Move

****

Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

Think of the term ‘film noir’ and the image that probably springs to mind is a rain-washed street in moody black and white. One False Move switches between the soft neon glow of Los Angeles and the sun-dappled greenery of rural Arkansas. Yet it’s one of the most perfect examples of this quintessentially American genre that I’ve ever seen.

Because at heart, film noir isn’t so much about the camerawork as the characters. People drawn into a spiral of violence and mistrust through a character flaw, a past mistake or both. Franklin realises that at its best the genre is as much about human drama as edge-of-the-seat tension and as a result his film easily stands comparison with the best of Aldrich, Hawks and Huston.

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Its chillingly effective opening charts a drug deal orchestrated by ice-cool mastermind Pluto (Michael Beach) his trigger-happy accomplice Ray (Billy Bob Thornton) and Ray’s girlfriend ‘Fantasia’ (Cynda Williams). She uses her friendship with a small-time LA dealer to give the duo access to a hoard of cocaine and money. They take everything, eliminate everyone who stands in their way, and flee the city.

But an act of mercy by Fantasia during the killing spree leaves a small boy as witness. The police quickly ID the gang, establishing that Ray and Fantasia are originally from Star City, a small town in Arkansas, and may well be intending to lay low there. Two detectives (Jim Metzler and Earl Billings) are sent out to liaise with the local sheriff, Dale ‘Hurricane’ Dixon (Bill Paxton).

Dixon turns out to be “a force of nature” – a reformed hell-raiser whose energies have been channelled into diligent if unorthodox policing. He clearly sees himself as a pillar of the community and a devoted family man, but chafes at the relative lack of excitement in the job. Hero-worshipping the sharp-suited, worldly detectives, he’s eager to prove to them that he can handle a big takedown.

The ‘small town lawman versus big-city bad guys’ scenario is a not unfamiliar one – it’s the premise of Don Siegel’s Coogan’s Bluff as well as countless traditional Westerns. But ‘Hurricane’ is far more complex than the standard all-American backwoods hero. His straight-talking manner has a strong streak of casual racism in it and there’s a sense of egotism in his perception of himself as the white knight of the neighbourhood.

As he senses the LA guys; condescension towards him he becomes ever more eager to bring the gang in himself – but it quickly emerges that he knew Fantasia well when she was plain Lila Walker. Their history from the time before she left town has had lasting consequences – and is about to come back to haunt him...

To say more would be to give away too much. Suffice to say that Franklin delivers both an expertly accomplished thriller, with a taut, believable script and several almost unbearably tense set pieces, and a compelling, nuanced personal drama. The film’s also an astute and penetrating look at the still- prevalent attitudes to rural America’s black underclass. Without any strident drum-beating, Franklin makes it clear that the end of official segregation hasn’t changed the separate status of Star City’s ‘Nigger Town’ – or the good old boys’ attitudes to its inhabitants.

The acting is universally top-drawer. Paxton, a supporting stalwart in the films of James Cameron amongst many others, handles a lead role as if to the manor born. His ‘Hurricane’ is a basically decent man who’s managed to get away with the one big mistake in his life, but sees the evidence of it every day and senses that the payback will eventually come. Fifty years ago, he’d have been played by John Garfield and Paxton has a similar talent for conveying a world of emotion with a look or a gesture.

Williams is so good that it’s amazing the role didn’t lead to bigger things. Beautiful but troubled, smart enough to realise how bad her life has turned but unable to break free, she’s the eternal small-town girl swallowed up by the city. One could say the same about Beach – he’s become a feature of the classier end of US telly in recent years yet his unsettlingly calm study of the amoral, nihilistic Pluto is easily the equal of the flashier big-screen psychos who were much in evidence at the time.

But the film was undoubtedly Thornton’s big break, and rightly so. As well as contributing half of the screenplay, he turns Ray from a plot-device second banana into one of cinema’s most memorable villains. A brutal human hair-trigger whose moral compass went haywire long ago, but still with a warped sense of “honour among thieves” and a genuine devotion to the equally doomed Fantasia, the film crackles with suspense whenever he’s on screen.

Franklin followed it up with the arguably even better Devil In A Blue Dress, but then seemed to go off the boil a little. But any director would be proud to have those two on their CV. The soundtrack and camera work occasionally default to that soft-focus, soft-rock mode that was much in vogue during the ‘Lethal Weapon’ era. But that’s the only false move I can think of. For the most part (unlike his characters) Franklin gets everything just right.

Reviewed on: 19 Sep 2011
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A small town sheriff prepares to to apprehend a trio of criminals heading his way.
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