Why I love Carl Franklin’s One False Move

Franklin's 1992 thriller about a small-town cop facing off against a murderous trio cuts to the heart of police corruption and racial otherness.


Alexander Boucher


Anger is not something that can be faked in cinema. Few films harness anger into an energy; fewer are legitimate reckonings. Carl Franklin’s 1992 thriller, One False Move, is a reckoning of such power and intelligence that it’s a crime that it remains so under-appreciated.

The film follows small-town Arkansas Cop, Dale Dixon (Bill Paxton), who finds himself facing off against a trio of criminals: Fantasia (Cynda Williams), Ray (Billy Bob Thornton) and Pluto (Michael Beach) who arrive in Star City after committing a string of murders in LA. Dale decides it’s the perfect opportunity to prove his mettle, as a cop and as a man.

Dale seems a good natured, bumbling optimist, and in a lesser work, he might be the heroic cliché of the last good guy in a sea of corruption. But Franklin – directing a script by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson – is well aware of the dangers of aggrandizing the police. There had been enough of that in the decades previous.

The 1980s’ slate of American action films were careful to make police forces look not only effective, but sexy. The likes of Lethal Weapon and Beverly Hills Cop, while undeniably well-crafted, rehabilitated the image of law enforcement not by sanitizing them, but by embracing a mode of over the top violence and winking humour that would present cops as mavericks who did what needed to be done.

This Reagan era excess is perhaps presented most bluntly in 1986’s Cobra, a film about a one-man army in the shape of a cop. The tagline summarised the decade’s thesis: “Crime is a disease. Meet the cure”. One False Move offered a rebuttal to the unchecked proliferation of these movies, sharing more in common with The Big Heat than Red Heat.

While the film noirs that influenced One False Move were willing to dive into a seedy underbelly, even they had limits, in large part thanks to the Hays Code. Films like Touch of Evil suggested that police corruption was an exception that proved the rule: that cops were, supposedly, decent people by their nature. In contrast, One False Move was released the year of the L.A riots – it was clearer than ever that the entire justice system was broken.

After the murders that open the film, terms are used by the detectives that dehumanise the suspects. “He’s a black guy with glasses”, one says about Pluto, while casually throwing in “she’s good looking”, when looking at a photo of Fantasia, who is mixed race. How long will it be before any “black guy with glasses” will look suspicious to them, and any mixed race woman will excite them?

One cop tells the press the crime is “as violent as we’ve ever seen” but the tactics of the police bear a subtler, insidious violence. Fear mongering forms a media story, and goes on to shape public opinion. It all trickles down from above like blood through floorboard cracks, briefly satiating the bloodlust below.

Dale’s jurisdiction is smaller, but his hunger for power is the same. “I’ve been thinking about moving out to L.A and joining up”, he tells a detective. “He watches a lot of TV”, Dale’s wife later mentions. Perhaps he saw the press conference about the crimes. Perhaps it reminded him of a Sylvester Stallone film.

When Dale uses racial slurs, the detectives look at each other wryly. They wear suits; Dale wears jeans and a jacket. He drives a truck; they drive town cars. The eagerness to dismiss racism as an issue confined to the working class is keenly recognised, and the film is adept at exploring prejudice on all economic levels. Through each strata, the beast feeds itself, an unstoppable ouroboros. We find out the detectives use Dale and his local knowledge to their benefit, without ever admitting that they need him. Their beliefs are the same as his: they’ve just had enough training to know how to disguise them. Dale hasn’t, and they’d never accept a working class guy like him into their midst.

Meanwhile, Fantasia is treated with outright cruelty by Ray, who fetishises and brutalises her in equal measure. Franklin is careful to explore her character beyond being a vessel for violence – she is complex, unpredictable, cagey. He trains his camera on her with fascination rather than with a leering eye; we wonder who she was before she met Ray.

Just as Fantasia is a victim of Ray’s, each of their victims is black. These aren’t crimes of necessity; they are done with gleeful sadism. The film blazes with a desperation for a ceasefire, but never does the pace slow for moralising. Just as bigotry is a symptom of a society built on competition and capitalism, so too are the film’s ideas by-products of its plotting. They are woven so carefully into the story that it’s only as the threads tighten that they begin to reveal themselves.

As the trio edge closer to a showdown with Dale, the film begins to resemble a Neo-Western. The quintessential anxieties of the genre, most notably the concerns about a national identity, are all present, mined from the subconscious of a relatively new country just as coal was mined from its earth. Dale resembles Gary Cooper in High Noon, a lone sheriff framed against gorgeous landscapes at sunrise. And like High Noon, One False Move aches with futility.

After Fantasia splits from Ray and Pluto, Dale finds her hiding out in a farmhouse. It turns out they have a history together – he slept with her when she was a teenager, and is her son’s father. She asks if he’ll try some of the birthday cake she bought for their baby; he fidgets and sneers “Don’t call him that”. His shame and denial ties into the Western’s fear of moral corruption, and in the scenes between the two, a twist on melodrama emerges. The domesticity of the genre is reflected in a house that is turned into a fort. Outside there will be gunfire, while inside there are secrets which will destroy Dale and Fantasia’s senses of self.

“My daddy was white”, Fantasia says. “You figured since I look kinda white you can fuck me. And because I was kinda black, you think you can dump me”. Dale’s stands in quiet shame.. Paxton’s charisma carries a wounded quality, and a potential for it to be weaponised. His inner tension suggests a desire to make things right, but his shame paralyses him. He abused his power, and now his fear of the ‘other’ is permanently tied to his existence.

Even so, Dale is using Fantasia’s body again, for bait rather than sex this time. She speaks with softness as she pleads for acknowledgement, and the femme fatale trope is flipped; she isn’t a viper who has ruined his life – she is a kid who wants her pain to be acknowledged. Black and mixed race people do not get to refuse the way things are; there is no luxury of denial.

My grandfather was ashamed of his own race. So beaten down by the racism he suffered, he would bleach his skin to try and make it lighter and prayed that his children would turn out lighter than he was. My grandmother was a German Jew who did everything she could to conceal her identity, so scared that she’d be singled out. Many find it hard to believe that any person could be brought to that point, but it was the result of a society that refused to accept itself.

Nothing can undo the pain they went through, not even an acknowledgement of the fact, so we look to art for solace. In a strange way, I find One False Move to be cathartic. The film talks about the things we’re not supposed to talk about, in a genre that has historically denied the things on which it is built; the fetishising of exploitation and violence.

I can see myself in Dale and Fantasia’s child, and the tenderness that the film displays towards him is devastating. To acknowledge and feel proud of who you are , when you know that your ancestors couldn’t, is deeply conflicting – to see that conflict play out on screen is transformative. One False Move is an interrogation of shame and race, whilst also functioning as an exorcism of a century of violent cinema. As a result, it feels like the last movie on earth, the end of a cinematic era.

I keep returning to a moment towards the end of the film, in which a wounded Dale finally sits beside his young son. It is a rare moment of tenderness, in which a deeply flawed person finally reckons with himself. “What do you do with your keys?” the kid asks, seemingly perplexed by this stranger lying bloodied in the dust. “I lock things up”, he tells him.

This line says it all. Here is a man who is a product of a culture that locks things away when they’re inconvenient, a man that clings to the binary of good and bad, black and white, cop and robber. All that is left of it now is the kid sitting next to him. He asks him to come closer so he can get a good look at him. In his face perhaps he sees the truth: it’s time for the things we lock away to come out.

Published 24 Feb 2023

Tags: Bill Paxton Carl Franklin

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