One False Move is one double-take after another. It starts in South Central Los Angeles then moves to Arkansas, and manages to find a narrative and social thread that leads from the inner city to the backwoods. It's a film noir that takes an interest in racial issues. Most confusingly, it has a violent first reel and a violent last reel that really don't belong in the same piece of work. They could more or less be shown in film school as examples of diametrically opposed approaches.
The opening sequence shows violence, not as it is exactly, but with an edge of non-fiction: casual, messy and extremely upsetting. Not knowing the context, the viewer struggles to make sense of what is going on; and, by so doing, to blunt the hurt of watching. Violence here is a matter of tied hands and taped mouths, of pillow-cases over heads, of matter-of-fact stabbings or asphyxiations made easy with the use of a plastic bag.
This is a defensible way of showing violence, as experienced rather than as spectacle, but in the case of One False Move we are hardly set up to be entertained, as we ultimately are by the bulk of the film. In the last reel, though, we are back in the realm of TV violence. When there is a shoot- out, violence metes out justice, settles scores and leaves room for atonement by the tragically flawed. Our assent is invited to the reckoning, and bodies are struck relatively cleanly by the familiar moralised bullets of the genre. One False Move isn't about violence - as a film noir, it can only be about fate, about the pattern underlying what is apparently random - and it has no business coming on as if it was.
Having started off In Cold Blood, the film modulates into a topsy-turvy variant of In the Heat of the Night. The city detectives working on the case learn that the killers are headed for Star City, Arkansas, and go on ahead to wait for them. There they must work with Dale Dixon (Bill Paxton), who hasn't drawn his gun in his six years as sheriff. Dale is nicknamed Hurricane, but even he doesn't seem to know why.
The town-mouse / country-mouse contrasts are fresh and funny in the script, which is by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson. When the sheriff is called in to deal with some domestic violence, the LA policeman pull their guns as a matter of course while they are some way off, while Dale simply wades in and disarms the violent husband. Then he gives him a good talking to about his drinking, tells him to put the axe right back in the shed where it belongs, to fix the window that just got broken in the scuffle, and to go to church on Sunday.
In Star City, people say 'nigger' without thinking twice about it, but if they swear you know it's about something serious. So far away from the big city and its temptations, there are still innocent reasons for being out at four in the morning - 'Gigging frogs' as it happens - as well as guilty ones. Small town ways (by which I mean, rednecks you could love) haven't been observed this affectionately since the early films of Jonathan Demme (Citizens Band, for instance), and Paxton plays Dale as if he was Paul Le Mat (Melvin in Melvin and Howard). But there are few illusions here. Dale may ask the waitress how her husband is, but when she mentions he's had his gall-bladder out, he says only, 'Good for him'. Dale is honest, but only as long as your definition of honesty permits the stealing of candy bars and the consistent underpaying of his bills in the diner. He always calls out, 'Keep the change,' but it's only the city boys who are dumb enough to tip.
In one scene, the different idioms of city and country actually play a part in triggering violence. A state trooper, stopping the killers for no real reason, says, 'Get out of the car. You first, ma'am' - referring to Fantasia (Cynda Williams), who plays such a classic film noir role in the film, both the most and the least guilty of all. But it's been so long since the driver of the car heard a woman addressed as 'ma'am' that he hears 'man' instead, and gets out of the car. A situation that might have been contained spins out of control, when one nasal consonant is mistaken for another.
The screenwriters grew up together in Arkansas, and have been writing scripts for some time, though this is their first to be produced. The director, Carl Franklin, has made low budget features for Roger Corman's Concorde films. We'll be hearing again from all of them, though it's fair to say that the directing is rather less sure-footed than the script. Franklin has a considerable career behind him as an actor, and gets fine performances from his cast, but he rather overdoes the film noir props towards the end. There have already been ominous animal-type noises aplenty on the soundtrack - rattlesnakes, feral chuckling - before the whip-poor- will starts its song, cue for someone to mention the superstition that these liquid syllables herald a death. There's a sudden flurry of brooding low camera angles, and the sort of shot of an old man playing harmonica in the road that normally means an advertisement for beer or jeans is underway.
Still, Franklin seizes the opportunity to make a film that tightly binds up any political concerns it may have into the plot. When the fated Fantasia says to her brother, 'Looking guilty's being guilty for black people, you know that,' it happens to be a lie in her particular case, a means to an end. But the idea hangs around uncomfortably in this unusual film noir, when her full story is told - with the corollary it implies, that looking innocent is as good as being innocent, so long as you're white.
'One False Move' opens today.
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