Before A Simple Plan, there was One False Move – a neo noir that was underrated from its very inception. Relegated to the direct-to-video market, it secured a theatrical run through glowing word of mouth, especially that of Gene Siskel, who named it his best film of 1992. A city-by-city release followed, earning Carl Franklin’s film a modest box office of $1.5 million. But like most entries in my retrospective series, One False Move was to be a footnote, neglected and forgotten, with a meagre 9806 votes on IMDb as testament. Happily, this unsung status causes One False Move to be a most satisfying discovery, for it is a film of vicious force and emotional depth that has no flaw worth mentioning.

It begins in a whirlwind of violence as criminal trio Ray (Billy Bob Thornton), Pluto (Michael Beach) and Fantasia (Cynda Williams) burst into a Los Angeles home, looking for a trove of cash and cocaine. Ray isn’t one to negotiate; his guiding instinct is violence of a mindless, animal kind. He treats the inhabitants with total brutality, kicking them in the face and dousing their hair with lighter fluid, waving a lighter with cruel relish. Pluto is a quiet contrast to Ray’s redneck savagery, yet he pulls the strings. Poised and steely, Pluto lets Ray loose like a crazed pit bull, reining him in when appropriate. But make no mistake, Pluto is evil incarnate, a calculating psychopath with an IQ of 150 and a chilling capacity for violence.

One False MoveRay and Pluto’s visceral brutality feels informed by true crime. The chilling indifference with which they beat, stab and shoot brings to mind the Hi-Fi murders of 1974, a depraved robbery in which the perpetrators forced their victims to drink drain cleaner before executing them. Ray and Pluto share the same disgusting resolve, which is to take whatever they want with as much violence as they please. They are characters whose actions feel genuinely dangerous and unnervingly true to life.

A vital accessory to this dynamic is Fantasia, Ray’s girlfriend. She aids and abets, riddled with doubt and anxiety as their wickedness plumbs new depths. She’s complicit and downright guilty, but Fantasia does not share these men’s psychopathy. Why is she with them? What has led her to this? We don’t know, but the damage and regret that Williams exudes suggests that Fantasia has a very troubled past.

One False MoveMeanwhile, a world away from this degeneracy, Sheriff Dale Dixon (Bill Paxton) tends to his family in Star City, Arkansas. Dale is an amiable good ol’ boy, happy with his lot yet inspired by bigger things. He is elated by a conference call from LA detectives Cole (Jim Metzler) and McFeely (Earl Billings), who relay that the criminal trio is most likely headed for Star City. “I guess they keep you pretty busy don’t they, chief?” Dale buzzes as he speaks with the LA Chief of Police, who’s also on the call. Dale rambles, “Sometimes we get a stabbing, coloured boys generally… sticking each other over a card game or some shit.” McFeely, a black man, smirks in bemusement, intrigued by Dale’s provincial ways. The conference table joins him, shifting their eyes and subtly cringing.

When Cole and McFeely arrive in Star City, Dale’s southern hospitality includes more racial faux pas, which gets him a kick under the table from his wife, Cheryl (Natalie Canerday). However, Dale’s crass epithets come from his social conditioning rather than any visceral prejudice. Indeed, Dale has nothing but respect and admiration for McFeely and his partner, whom he views as glamourous big city cops. The detectives like Dale enough in return, but their respect for him is a pretense, which becomes painfully apparent to Dale when he overhears the pair mocking his notions of joining the LA force.

One False MoveThis clash of Dixieland and the West Coast may sound familiar, but any potential cliché is prised from the livewire narrative by Franklin’s potent direction and Thornton’s textured, pithy script. Every exchange services the plot and character development, keeping the pace tight and exciting but also considered and reflective. For example, when the detectives join Dale and his wife Cynthia for dinner, she catches Cole alone to express her concernabout her husband’s safety, “He looks at y’all like you’re some kind of heroes… he watches TV, I read non-fiction.” Just that brief line reveals a great deal about Dale’s vulnerabilities, both as a husband and a cop.

This characterwork is all part of the noirish streak running through the film; the cynicism of the big city cops contrasted with the ingenuousness of the parochial sheriff. However, not all is as it seems, for Dale reveals a willingness to erode his morals to protect his reputation, in a climax that’s every bit as Jacobean as you’d expect from the hard boiled tradition of storytelling.