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‘One False Move’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 18, 1992

"One False Move" is a thriller with a hair-trigger sense of tension. Directed by newcomer Carl Franklin, its power comes from the stripped-down simplicity of its style and the unblinking savagery of its violence. Franklin's approach to violence isn't voluptuous or romantic; it's harsh and unfussy and realistic. Without its lethal edge, this story about a drug deal gone sour might seem routine, just another drug movie. But this ruthless element, along with a handful of impressive performances, separates "One False Move" from the other films in its genre. It creates its own grim space.

The movie begins in Los Angeles when two men and a woman barge in on a party and, after killing everyone in the house, plus a dealer and his girfriend in another part of town, head into the night with their stash. Their plan is to sell the cocaine in Houston, but when the deal explodes, they get sidetracked in heartland towns with names like Star City and Texarkana. It's dead-end country, and alien territory for both the dealers -- Ray (Billy Bob Thornton, who co-wrote the script) and Pluto (Michael Beach) -- and the L.A. detectives (Jim Metzler and Earl Billings) who are sent there to track them down. It's home ground, though, for Ray's girlfriend, Fantasia (Cynda Williams), and Star City sheriff "Hurricane" Dixon (Bill Paxton), who grew up there and, as we learn later, share a secret past.

The movie's fevered early scenes set the heightened emotional tone. Franklin's method in these sequences is surreptitious and detached; the shock of the brutality may sneak up on you, as it does when Pluto casually places a pillowcase over each of his victims' heads and coolly stabs them to death. But this bloody matter-of-factness is the film's most startling twist. Like "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer," "One False Move" gets its effects by virtue of an almost surgical clinicism; it has a reportorial feel, a sense of verite immediacy.

That goes for the actors as well. As the eager-beaver sheriff, Paxton is the movie's best-known actor (with the exception of Cynda Williams, the rest are largely unknown), and watching him storm through the streets of Star City -- one of those towns where "everyone knows when you're born and cares about it when you die" -- you fully understand how his character got the nickname "Hurricane."

Paxton ("Near Dark," "Aliens") is one of the movies' most underrated character actors, and his performance here has a hayseed dynamism. Using a combination of common sense and sour mash charm, this hick sheriff has kept the peace for six years in Star City without once drawing his gun. But when the L.A. detectives arrive to stake out the trio's hideout, he's like a kid making his first trip to Disney World. Now he can see some real action, be a real cop; he's so fired up that he even seriously entertains the idea of moving to L.A. and joining up.

Franklin crosscuts between the police trio in Star City and the criminal trio on the road, between the breezy atmosphere of outdoor cookouts and the high-strung claustrophobia of the killers' car. With his wire rims and preppy blandness, Beach's Pluto has the marrow-chilling stare of a true psycho; he kills without batting an eye. As Fantasia (whose real name is Lila), Williams is a ragged-out beauty; she hates what she's become but doesn't know what to do about it, and her sadness has a dark undertow. She's not just damaged goods, she's ruined.

As the movie progresses, it deepens emotionally and becomes less of a detective thriller and more of a character study, and it's to Franklin's credit that he never allows his hard-boiled style to soften. Thematically, the movie doesn't make a strong statement, but it is strikingly expressive in its details. The film is Franklin's first, but already he's developed a strong aend language. sthetic personality. He's already a

r

eal filmmaker. "One False Move" is rated R for violence, sensualit

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