In 1992, Los Angeles erupted in riots in the wake of the Rodney King verdict, bringing the city’s—and our nation’s—simmering racial tensions to a boiling point. The films of the time reflected this free-floating anxiety. Juice and the following year’s Menace II Society transplanted the moody fatalism and finely honed cynicism of classic noir to inner cities brimming with violence, iniquity, and social unrest, finding a natural home for the genre’s dim view on human nature in the kill-or-be-killed strivings of small-time hustlers looking to move up the underworld chain.
1992 also saw the release of a pair of superb neo-noirs that captured the uncertain vibe of an age when race relations seemed to be moving sideways and backward rather than forward: Deep Cover and One False Move. Written by Henry Bean and Michael Tolkin and directed by actor-turned-director Bill Duke, Deep Cover is the more overtly political of the two, an underrated neo-noir that doubles as a shadowy meditation on moral ambiguity and the slippery line separating cops from criminals during the height of a hypocritical and innately doomed war on drugs. One False Move, written by Billy Bob Thornton and partner Tom Epperson and masterfully directed by actor-turned-director Carl Franklin, is subtler in its take on both politics and race relations. Much of the film’s power lies in its matter-of-factness. Rather than make a bold statement about the hypocrisy of the war on drugs like Deep Cover, One False Move allows its resonant themes to emerge organically out of the material. The filmmakers are more intent on telling a good story than delivering a message, but trenchant social criticism seeps in all the same. In one of the film’s key lines of dialogue, a haunted single mother played by Cynda Williams replies to her brother’s assertion that her being on the run makes her look guilty with a resigned, “Looking guilty is being guilty for black people.”
A hard life has robbed Williams’ character of any illusions. She seems to have accepted that the world will be unsparing and is intent on stealing as many isolated moments of happiness as possible between the soul-killing drudgery, whether that happiness comes from a snort of cocaine or a reunion with a son she left long ago. Williams is the damaged, beautiful, poignant soul of One False Move, a good woman who has fallen in with some bad people and must finagle her way out of a seemingly impossible situation. But she’s just part of a uniformly fine ensemble highlighted by Thornton in the role that should have catapulted him to stardom. He exudes menace despite sporting the single worst hairstyle in the history of the known universe, a strange, singularly unflattering balding mullet/ponytail combination.
In One False Move Thornton, Williams, and accomplice Michael Beach form a makeshift, dysfunctional crime family that works—but only up to a certain point. Beach, with his grad-school glasses, vaunted intelligence (we learn he has an I.Q of 150), and air of brooding intensity, is the brains of the operation, while Thornton is the perpetually twitchy, hot-headed muscle, and Williams the soul and messy humanity. Beach and Thornton register as borderline sociopathic. (In an early scene, Beach, who favors knives for that personal, intimate touch, stabs a woman to death while a videotape of his victim dancing and laughing just a few hours earlier plays in the background.) Williams, on the other hand, feels everything too deeply.
One False Movies explores a series of potent dichotomies: black and white, urban and rural, criminals and police. It opens in Los Angeles, where Beach, Thornton, and Williams score a fortune in cash and cocaine after a robbery that results in multiple casualties. The film then follows them as they travel to the small town of Star City, Arkansas, where Williams hopes to be reunited with her son. The protagonists’ crimes put them on the radar of a pair of accomplished Los Angeles detectives (Jim Metzler and Earl Billings) who form a bond of convenience with the sheriff of Star City, a genial, glad-handling cornpone dreamer played with an abundance of aw-shucks charm by Bill Paxton.
Billings and Metzler initially size up Paxton, not without reason, as a bit of a rube, but like the film itself, he proves more complicated than he originally appears. For Paxton’s small-timer, getting to collaborate with a pair of genuine big-city cops on an important, blood-soaked case is like a Little League coach getting tapped to manage the Yankees in the World Series. Paxton and the film glean real humanity and pathos from a character that easily could have come off as a caricature.
One False Move uses quietness powerfully. Much of its running time is devoted to the detectives and Paxton waiting for the criminals to arrive in Star City. The film is at its strongest in these in-between times, contentedly exploring the nooks and crannies of the antithetical worlds of Paxton’s sheriff and the criminals on the run. It goes long stretches without conventional action but it’s never lacking in tension or suspense, since its live-wire career criminals carry the threat of violence with them everywhere they go. One False Move infuses waiting with dread. When the waiting finally stops and the film’s disparate pieces come together, the result is visceral and uncompromising.
Race provides a crucial subtext to One False Move, but late in the film, race moves from subtext to text as Paxton is forced to wrestle with the lingering ramifications of a past dalliance with Williams. Franklin’s quietly trenchant neo-noir ends with the violent shattering of several interracial couplings: professional, personal, and romantic. But it also concludes on a hopeful note with the introduction of another interracial pair, as well as the suggestion that the next generation might not have to cope with as much crippling racial baggage as their parents—that for them at least, looking guilty will not amount to being guilty, regardless of the color of their skin.