Bill Paxton’s unexpected passing has people sifting through the diverse actors’ filmography, and many might not realize just how busy the guy was through his entire career. He did films both big and small, balancing work with titans like James Cameron, genre masters like Sam Raimi, and small indie filmmakers looking to make their own mark on Hollywood. One of the latter projects, Carl Franklin’s 1992 Neo Noir One False Move, was but one example of a movie made special by Paxton’s injection of earnest humanity.
One False Move crept along the undercurrent of early the 90s indie tidal wave, released sparsely throughout the country before critical praise and word of mouth helped expand its release nationwide. Critics and audiences were captivated by Franklin’s violent tale of a trio of killers fleeing Los Angeles, headed for Star City, Arkansas after ripping off drug dealers. The group is led by Pluto (Michael Beach) – a genius by any metric – and kept volatile by a dimwitted psychopath, Ray, played by a volcanic young Billy Bob Thornton. The third member is Fantasia (Cynda Williams, understated brilliance here), a reluctant criminal with deep-seated ties to their Arkansas destination.
Hot on the trail of the killers are a pair of jaded LA detectives, who must reach out to the Chief of Police in Star City, Bill Paxton’s Dale “Hurricane” Dixon. More than willing to cooperate, with dreams of becoming a real cop in a magical faraway land like Los Angeles, Dale eagerly welcomes these city suits to his small town and wags his tail in the presence of such polished policemen. And it is Paxton’s portrayal that is absolutely crucial to One False Move’s success.
Franklin’s film is a dark, nihilistic glimpse of violence and violent criminals. It is cynical and dark and steeped in the grim trappings of modern noir storytelling. Which is why Bill Paxton’s open-faced portrayal of Hurricane Dixon is the beacon of light in the midst of all this madness. His humanity allows the audience an inroad to the story; he wants nothing more than to please these two LA detectives, to help anywhere he can, so when he overhears them mocking his Southern hospitality in a diner, the hurt he shows cuts deep. It’s not only one of the more impactful emotional beats of the story, it’s at that moment we recognize Paxton’s ability to push this stock character beyond any cliche.
And when Dixon’s ties to Fantasia and the criminals comes to light in the film’s third act, we sympathize with his complicated relationship, stuck in the middle of the law and a secret that’s come back into his life. Bill Paxton’s ability to bring an urgent honesty to all of his roles pays off beautifully here.
One False Move flashed across the cinematic landscape in 1992 like a lone firecracker exploding against the night sky. It was spectacular, but fleeting, and it faded into the back of our collective unconscious as the indie film scene spread like wildfire over the next several years. Carl Franklin turned this film’s success into a series of uneven thrillers like Devil in A Blue Dress, Out of Time, and High Crimes, never quite capturing the streamlined greatness of this, his fourth and most significant feature. Like the film itself, Bill Paxton’s nuanced work here has often been overlooked in a career spanning films of all shapes, sizes, and impacts. It’s worth seeking out, especially now.
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