Who doesn’t love Bill Paxton?
Seriously, he’s just one of those actors. He’s appeared in a countless number of films and he’s played a lot of different characters. He was a psycho vampire in Near Dark. He was the underwater explorer who got stuck with all of the worst lines in Titanic. In Frailty, he was a father who was driven to murder by heavenly visions. He was the sleaziest of sleazes in Nightcrawler. And, of course, in Big Love, he was an unrepentant polygamist. In all of these roles, Paxton showed the quirkiness that has made him so beloved to film lovers like me. Much like Kevin Bacon, it doesn’t matter what role Bill Paxton is playing. You’re going to like him and you’re going to be happy to see him onscreen.
And yet, considering just how many popular films that he’s appeared in, it’s interesting to note that Bill Paxton’s best performance can be found in a film about which not many people seem to have heard. That film is the 1992 Southern crime drama, One False Move.
Actually, it does the film a disservice to refer to it as merely being a crime drama. I mean, it is a drama and it even has a properly dark ending to prove that fact. And it is about criminals and police officers. But ultimately, the film’s plot is just a starting point that the film uses to examine issues of culture, race, and guilt. In the end, One False Movie is an unexpectedly poignant and penatrating character study of 5 very different people.
We start out with three criminals. Ray (played by Billy Bob Thornton, who also co-wrote the script) is a career criminal, a white trash redneck who is not particularly smart but who is dangerous because he’s ruthless and he’s willing to whatever he need to do to survive. (If you’ve lived in the country, you will recognize Ray’s type as soon as you see him.) Ray’s girlfriend is Fantasia (Cynda Williams), a beautiful but insecure woman. And finally, there’s Ray’s partner and former cellmate, Pluto (Michael Beach). Of the three of them, Pluto is the most menacing, a knife-wielding sociopath with an IQ of 150. Even though he’s working with Ray and Fantasia, Pluto always makes it clear that he considers himself to be both separate from and better than both of them.
Ray, Pluto, and Fantasia have just brutally murdered 6 people in Los Angeles, all of whom were friends of Fantasia’s. Now, they’re making their way to Houston, planning on selling stolen cocaine. Pursuing them are two LAPD detective, Cole (Jim Metzler) and McFeeley (Earl Billings). When Cole and McFeeley come across evidence that the three criminals might have a connection with the tiny town of Star City, Arkansas, they call up the local sheriff.
And that’s where Bill Paxton shows up.
Paxton plays Sheriff Dale Dixon. Dale’s nickname is Hurricane and it’s soon obvious why. Like a hurricane, Dale never stops moving. He’s a well-meaning but hyperactive good old boy who has a talent for saying exactly the wrong thing. When he first talks to Cole and McFeeley over the phone, he amuses them with his enthusiastic bragging and briefly offends them with his casual racism.
Cole and McFeeley eventually end up taking a trip to Star City, so that they can investigate how the three criminals are connected to this tiny town. When Dixon meets up with them, he asks them if they could help him get a job with the LAPD. The two cops initially humor Dixon and laugh at him behind his back. When Dixon’s wife (a wonderful performance from Natalie Canerday) asks Cole to keep Dixon safe, Cole assures her that Ray, Fantasia, and Pluto are probably not even going to come anywhere near Star City.
However, Dixon soon reveals to the two cops that Fantasia’s name is Lila and that her family lives in Star City. What he doesn’t tell them, however, is that he and Lila have a personal connection of their own…
One False Move is a twisty and intense thriller, one that’s distinguished by strong performances from the entire cast. (Even Metzler and Billings bring unexpected shadings to Cole and McFeeley, who, in any other film, would have been portrayed as being stock characters.) But the film is truly dominated by Bill Paxton. When we first meet Dixon, he seems like a joke. We’re sure that he’ll somehow end up being the film’s hero (because that’s what happens in movies about small town sheriffs being underestimated by big city cops) but what we’re not expecting is that Dale is going to turn out to be such a multi-layered and fascinating character. Just as Dale eventually starts to lower his defenses and reveal who he truly is, Paxton also starts to reign in his initially overwhelming performance and reveals himself to be a subtle and perceptive actor. It’s a great performance that elevates the entire film. Al Pacino won the 1992 Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in Scent of a Woman. That award should have gone to the unnominated Bill Paxton.
It wouldn’t be fair to reveal One False Move‘s secrets. It’s a film that you really should see for yourself.