One False Move was a startling revelation for audiences who discovered this lean, gritty crime drama in 1992. An independent film with richly drawn characters, complex relationships and brutal violence, it was helmed by a filmmaker just breaking out of exploitation pictures and featured a largely unknown cast. And it almost skipped theaters entirely for direct-to-video release, a fate it escaped thanks to critics who championed the film.
The original screenplay was written by Billy Bob Thornton, at the time an actor struggling to make a career for himself, with his friend and longtime collaborator Tom Epperson. Hollywood was interested but it languished at the studios until independent producers Jesse Beaton and Ben Myron shopped it to I.R.S. Media, the production arm of I.R.S. Records. It went into preproduction in early 1990 with a budget of $2.5 million and director Carl Franklin at the helm. A veteran stage and TV actor, Franklin made a career change at age 37. He enrolled in the AFI Conservatory to study directing and supplemented his education with a two-year stint working for Roger Corman as a writer and director and other jobs on exploitation pictures at Concorde Pictures. It was a crash course in practical filmmaking, a path taken by such filmmakers as Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, Jonathan Demme and Joe Dante, but it was Franklin's AFI thesis film, a dramatic short called Punk (1986), that got him the job.
One False Move follows a trio of criminals on the run from a cold-blooded robbery and six murders and two veteran LAPD detectives who fly to a rural Arkansas town to await their arrival with the help of an enthusiastic but naïve small town police chief. Thornton and Epperson talked to Los Angeles police officers and detectives and studied crime scene photos while writing their script. "We wanted to show violence the way it really is," Thornton explained to Terry Gross on the public radio series Fresh Air. "It had to be brutal in order to show that violence is not fun, it's not like RoboCop." They visualized the murders of the opening scenes with a dispassionate, matter-of-fact presentation, as if a TV news crew had filmed it, and Franklin agreed, as he related to Gross in the same radio program. "I felt that the honesty of trying to depict a real, violent situation was necessary."
The film finds its center in small town chief Dale Dixon, a young, garrulous, rural character with the nickname "Hurricane." Franklin found his leading man in Bill Paxton, a likeable young actor who with memorable turns in Aliens (1986) and Predator 2 (1990). Though he was the best known actor in the cast, the financiers wanted a bigger name in the lead and insisted on looking at other actors. Franklin convinced them that Paxton was the right choice. "Bill was an honest, upfront guy. And that was the character Hurricane," Franklin said in a 2018 interview. "He has a wide range. The real issue was trying to get him not to do as much, and to recognize that he’s a leading man." He worked with Paxton to pull back and rely on his presence to carry his scenes. "When he's spare, it's just a wonderful thing to watch."
Thornton took the role of Ray Malcolm, an impulsive, sadistic, southern-born criminal in Los Angeles. Franklin was nervous about directing an actor who was also the writer, but Thornton was open to collaboration. "We worked together on changing a lot of scenes, sometimes a couple of minutes before we would shoot, and he was incredible to work with," remembered Franklin.
The character of Pluto, Ray's brilliant but cold-blooded partner, is the opposite of the emotionally volatile Ray. The script called for a large, imposing man, but Franklin thought it would be more effective to make him smaller, more average looking, and he cast the Juilliard-trained Michael Beach, who plays the quiet, deliberate Pluto behind a pair of wire-rimmed glasses. As Franklin explained, "That was what I thought made these characters much more frightening, that they are so much just ordinary people." Cynda Williams's completes the criminal trio as Ray's girlfriend Fantasia. It was only her second film, after making her debut opposite Denzel Washington in Spike Lee's Mo' Better Blues (1990). Jim Metzler and Earl Billings played the L.A. cops.
The $2.5 million budget was a significant increase for Franklin but small for a Hollywood production, and they had to make the most of their resources. The film was shot in Arkansas and in and around Los Angeles, which stood in for stops on the criminal road trip. To complete the film on time, Franklin turned to a colleague from his Roger Corman days to shoot second unit footage, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, who went on to win Oscars for Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List (1993) and Saving Private Ryan (1998).
Production wrapped in late 1990, but the film sat on the shelf for a year before I.R.S. Media made a deal to release it directly to video. In a last effort to get a theatrical release, producer Jesse Beaton got the film into a series of festivals. Audiences embraced it, and film critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel proclaimed the film as one of the year's best on their TV show. It was enough for a test run in Chicago, Los Angeles and Seattle, a launching pad for a national release.
Though it was not a box-office hit, One False Move was a critical success and a showcase for the talent behind the film. It launched Thornton as both an actor and a writer; just a few years later, he won an Academy Award for writing Sling Blade (1996), which he also directed and starred in. It elevated Paxton from character actor to leading man in films like Twister (1996) and A Simple Plan (1998). And Franklin won the best director prize at the Independent Spirit Awards, where the film also earned nominations for best feature, screenplay, score and female lead for Cynda Williams. Franklin calls it his first "real" feature, and it led to his directing his first studio film, Devil in a Blue Dress (1995) with Denzel Washington, and a career that is still going strong.
"How did 'One False Move' become a sleeper hit?," staff. Entertainment Weekly, August 21, 1992.
"Billy Bob Thornton," interview by John Bowe. Bomb, no. 58, January 1997.
Carl Franklin audio commentary, One False Move DVD. Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 1999.
"Carl Franklin Revisits His Great 'One False Move' and Laments the Absence of Dramas from Today’s Hollywood," Danny King. The Village Voice, April 20, 2018.
AFI Catalog of Feature Films