The film opens with three criminals - Ray (Billy Bob Thornton), an immoral and slightly neurotic thief. Fantasia (Cynda Williams) Ray's less violent girlfriend. And Pluto (Michael Beach) an intelligent yet psychotic killer. Ray and Pluto commit six brutal murders over the course (Fantasia set up a few friends who became victims) of one night in Los Angeles, all to find a cache of money and cocaine. The trio leave town for Houston to sell the cocaine to a friend of Pluto's.
The LAPD start investigating the case, with two detectives taking the helm. After getting a few good leads, they discover that the criminal trio are possibly headed for Star City, Arkansas. The LAPD contacts the Star City sheriff, Dale "Hurricane" Dixon (Bill Paxton; he earned the nickname 'hurricane' because of his frantic energy), in an effort to work together. Dixon is not what they expect. A small-town guy who became a small-county sheriff, Dixon oftens talks too much, listens too little, uses strange colloquialisms ("that'll put a stopper in the bottle") and takes things for granted. Truthfully, Dixon is excited about the case, as it gives him an opportunity to do "some real police work" with big-city cops. Dixon is well known throughout the small county and says hello to everyone - except one five-year-old African-American child whom he sees here and there and immediately gets quiet when confronted with.
The detectives travel to Star City and meet up with Dixon. The three sit down with Dixon's wife and daughter that night for a country dinner, which the detectives seem to enjoy very much. As the booze continues to flow, Dixon continues to buddy up to the two big-city cops, who he reveres as modern day cowboy heroes. (In this scene, Dixon relates that "My momma always told me I was born under a lucky star" - the quote exposing his small town naivete and the theme of luck in the movie).
Meanwhile, Ray, Fantasia and Pluto are headed to Houston when they run into bad luck in Texas. A state trooper, acting on a hunch, orders Pluto and Ray out of the car and keeps them at gunpoint. The jig is about to be up, but Fantasia sneaks up behind the trooper and shoots him in the head.
Sensing camaraderie between the two LAPD detectives and himself, Dixon opens up and says that he wants to move out to Los Angeles and join the force, hoping to form a three-man partnership with them. One detective says it's an "interesting idea," but later retells the story and laughs hysterically at the idea of Dixon as an LAPD cop. Unbeknownst to him, Dixon is actually in the room when this happens and is deeply hurt. Word of the trooper's murder gets to the detectives in Star City, and the trio look over surveillance photos of Ray and Fantasia in a convenience store before the murder. Dixon informs the cops that Fantasia's real name is Lila Walker. Lila grew up in Star City, Dixon says, and was a slightly troubled youth who left for Hollywood with dreams of acting.
The detectives sense there is more to the story. The detectives stop by Lila's relatives' house, and see a young boy (the young boy who Dixon gets quiet around) who lives there - who is revealed to be Lila's young son. The detectives get the feeling that Lila is coming home to see her son.
Ray, Lila and Pluto arrive in Houston to sell the drugs as planned. Lila takes a bus ahead from Houston to Star City while Pluto and Ray stay behind to work the coke deal. The Houston coke deal goes terribly sour for Ray and Pluto, who then have to kill three more people and flee the city. The two drive from Houston to Star City to meet up with her and plan their next move.
Lila arrives in town and hides out at a rural house; she gets to see her son for one night of happiness before she must flee. When Lila's time with her son is up, Dixon confronts her, and the audience finally learns what is suspected: That the boy is Dixon and Lila's son, from an affair he and Lila had years before. After much tense conversation, they make a deal. Lila will bait Ray and Pluto to ensure their capture. In exchange, Dixon will help Lila escape town; after that, she's on her own.
Pluto and Ray arrive at the house, are lured in by Lila and are immediately confronted by an armed Dixon. Pluto stabs Dixon in the stomach and Dixon shoots Pluto at point blank range. Ray draws his gun and runs outside while shooting at Dixon. The two fire at each other outside, but Lila stops Dixon from killing Ray only to have Ray errantly shoot her in the head. Dixon is shot in the chest, but steadies himself and shoots Ray to death. Pluto walks outside and falls dead in the grass. Dixon calls for help with his police radio and the LAPD detectives (and Lila's son) arrive, amazed at the work he has done. Dixon and Lila's son walks over and talks to Dixon, and he asks the boy about himself.
Hal Hinson, writing for the Washington Post July 18, 1992, praised the film: ""One False Move" is a thriller with a hair-trigger sense of tension. Directed by newcomer Carl Franklin, its power comes from the stripped-down simplicity of its style and the unblinking savagery of its violence." Film critic Roger Ebert praised the film's director in his review: "It is a powerful directing job. He starts with an extraordinary screenplay and then finds the right tones and moods for every scene, realizing it's not the plot we care about, it’s the people."