Summer of ’92: Crime and Punishment

One False Reservoir Dog

This article is part of Summer of ’92the summer series that takes a look at the movies of 1992, the year I was born.

Have you ever heard about the class of ’92? The two-disc DVD of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs included a documentary about this supposed “class” of independent filmmakers that made a big splash at the 1992 Sundance Film Festival. I remain a little unconvinced about the influence of that particular group of directors, but there is no denying that, without a doubt, the biggest development for American cinema in the ’90s was the rise of independent filmmaking in the mainstream. And there is no denying that said rise happened largely thanks to the gigantic success of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, which in 1994 won the Palm D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and went on to conquer the world. This development helped make Miramax, the distribution company run by Harvey Weinstein into a relentless award-chasing empire, and Tarantino into one of those few directors famous enough to have his name be known by the average moviegoer. This development helped to bring many new voices to the mainstream, but also brought countless cheap Tarantino imitators.

Tarantino’s movie defined a whole decade of cinema, but in 19992, the Pulp Fiction phenomenon was still two years away. Independent cinema was on the rise, sure, but people didn’t know where it was going. The direction it was going to take was still up for grabs. That is the theme of this week’s entry in the Summer of ’92 series. I want to take a look at two independent movies released in 1992. One of them, is Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, which would end up becoming one of the most influential movies of the decade, being ripped off and copied almost as many times as Pulp Fiction. The other, One False Move, is a movie that got fantastic reviews when it was released, jump started the career of Billy Bob Thornton and Carl Franklin, but that 22 years later, seems to have been forgotten by the public. Is One False Move a glimpse into an alternative path for American independent cinema, or was it just too low-key to succeed?

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Cynda Williams is pissed at Billy Bob Thornton in ‘One False Move’

Maybe the reason why One False Move hasn’t had such a lasting afterlife, has to do with director Carl Franklin’s subsequent career. One False Move was his first “big” movie, or the first one for which he got a lot of critical praise. He followed it up with the equally interesting Devil in a Blue Dress and the cancer drama One True Thingbut his career started flinching after that, and he spends most of his time now directing television episodes. Not that there’s anything wrong with working in television, but it just isn’t the kind of auteurist career that gets you lots of followers. In any case, even though it wasn’t a huge box office hit, One False Move was highly praised back when it hit theaters, especially by Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, who back then were the most popular film critics in the country. Both of them named it among the very best movies of the year. And they weren’t alone, the critical response was overwhelmingly positive. It might very well be the best reviewed movie of that year as far as I can tell.

So, what made One False Move such a critical darling? Watching the movie all these years later, it’s kind of hard to say. I couldn’t say much about the cultural consciousness of 1992, but the movie doesn’t strike me as trying to make any big political statements, or being interested in anything particularly daring. The story, written by Tom Epperson and Billy Bob Thornton, is a pretty straightforward crime thriller. The movie starts with a trio of outlaws, Ray (Thornton), his girlfriend Fantasia (Cynda Williams), and their pal Pluto (Michael Beach) committing a violent robbery that leaves a bunch of dead bodies lying in Los Angeles. The trio quickly decides to get out of town, but after a series of complications -including the fact that they can’t sell the cocaine they stole- decide to flee to Fantasia’s hometown of Star City, Arkansas. The bad news if that the LAPD is onto them, and has sent two detectives to work alongside local sheriff Dale ‘Hurricane’ Dixon (Bill Paxton) to capture the criminals.

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Bill Paxton plays an eccentric Southern Sheriff known as ‘Hurricane’

Thus, the movie is basically a waiting game, as the criminals approach Star City, and the cops try to figure out a way to capture them. Like I said, pretty straightforward stuff. It’s just very well done straightforward stuff. One thing Roger Ebert pointed out in his rave review of One False Move is the fact that the developments in the latter half of the movie are not dictated by the plot, but by the characters. Not only is this true, but it’s actually kind of incredible -the more I think about it- how low-key and down-to-earth One False Move is in its pretensions as a movie. It is not trying to make any kind of grand statement, or change the way we look at cinema forever, the people involved in this just want to make the best movie possible. And they do. What’s more, their measured approach endows One False Move with one of the most effective treatments of race in any movie made in the 1990s. Race is not treated as a grand theme, or something to pontificate and get preachy about, but as one more thing that affects these characters’ lives, which is closer to the way we encounter it in real life.

While we are on that subject, let me say that it is both gratifying and sad to find such a diverse cast in this movie. Gratifying because they are all fantastic, and because all these years later, American movies and media are still suffering from diversity issues, which is precisely why I get kind of sad – the fact that I feel the need to point this out. Anyway, because it is such a slow-burn affair, my initial reaction to One False Move was to question what all the critics saw in it when it debuted, only to have the feel creep up on me in the days since I saw it, and making me see what a well made movie it is. It’s so modest and effective that it’s almost flawless. Almost because the editing is a little choppy, especially in the last big, violent sequence, and because, since we’re nitpicking, I still don’t fully get what Fantasia sees in Ray. But like I said, that’s nitpicking, because One False Move is brilliant in its simplicity.

And on the other hand, we have Reservoir Dogs, which might as well be the complete opposite from One False Move, starting by the fact that one of its biggest strengths is its editing, by Trantino’s longtime collaborator, the late Sally Menke. Especially now that I’m comparing it to other movies of the time, Menke’s editing work in Reservoir Dogs is very impressive, created enormous tension and realistic action in a more elegant way than, say, One False Move. Yes, the most accurate word to describe Menke’s style is elegant. Reservoir Dogs is a movie that doesn’t feel the need to cut when it’s not necessary. It makes its own pace, and establishes a rhythm all of its own, which can rush or drag as much as it wants without it being a problem. This makes me think that the thing many of those mid- and late-nineties Tarantino imitators were lacking (among other things) was an editing hand as assured as Menke’s. Consider, for example, the torture sequence in which Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) dances to Steelers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle With You”, and how the tension racks up in the middle of a completely laid back scene. With the years, Tarantino and Menke would perfect their game, reaching their peak in the unbearably tense scenes of Inglourious Basterds

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Michael Madsen’s bloody dance in ‘Reservoir Dogs’

However, at the time of Reservoir Dogs, the Tarantino-Menke collaboration was just starting, and while the Menke part of the equation seems to have emerged fully formed, I can’t say the same about the director. On the one hand, Tarantino definitely knew what kind of director he wanted to be, and what type of movies he wanted to create. One can easily describe Tarantino’s movies as tension-building pastiches that nod at other movies and cinema as a whole. Reservoir Dogs is just that. Its rather simple premise is that of a group of criminals turning on each other after the heist they were pulling goes wrong, which is fertile ground for creating tension, and as far as the metafictional qualities of the film go, well, Tarantino is interested in showing the more insignificant moments of a gangster’s life, the ones we don’t usually see in the movie. The best example is the opening scene, which is pretty well-known, in which the gangsters are having breakfast while discussing Madonna and the concept of tipping.

Those are qualities that would also be present in Pulp Fiction, which also features many insignificant conversations about food and pop culture. You probably know this by now, but Tarantino loves to hear his characters talk. The problem with Reservoir Dogs is that, at this point, he hadn’t yet perfected his way with dialogue. It’s actually kind of outstanding how much he improved between Dogs and Pulp Fiction, especially in terms of creating memorable characters, and making all those inconsequential conversation an integral, and interesting part of the film. I also think that, throughout his career, he discovered that hearing people talk about random stuff is not the ideal of trapping an audience in your movie, and thus, he began to experiment more and more with suspenseful scenes. Consider how in his latest movies, Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained especially, all the dialogue scenes have a suspenseful element in them, like characters being undercover, or other metaphorical bomb that is about to go off. The scenes in Reservoir Dogs don’t really have those elements, since most of them are flashbacks to before the robbery happened, and so, they end up being… kind of boring, actually.

So, here we are, and what becomes clear is that Reservoir Dogs became an influential film because of Pulp Fiction’s success and the cult that emerged around Quentin Tarantino. If this had been the only movie Tarantino directed, it would have become an interesting curiosity, but not a cultural mammoth, and the reason is simply that it isn’t as brilliant as Pulp Fiction, which is by all accounts one of the most brilliant movies ever made. Similarly, we have One False Move, which also failed to become an influential movie on its own terms, not quite capturing the cultural zeitgeist, which was probably looking for something more idiosyncratic and fresh. They wanted a movie that wore its coolness on its sleeve, and they would get it two years later.

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Previously in Summer of ’92:
Vampires and Bats takes a look at Batman Returns and Bram Stoker’s Dracula
Courtrooms and Ballrooms compares A Few Good Men to Strictly Ballroom

Next Week’s Double Feature: Actually, there will be no double-feature next week, but stick around to witness my foolish attempt to write about the music of 1992.

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