More than anything else, David M. Rosenthal’s A Single Shot is an effective exercise in sustained mood. The film’s aura—wilderness gloom, small-town criminality, animal carcasses, rivers flowing with blood, Atli Örvarsson’s grief-stricken score, Sam Rockwell’s beard—tells us how to feel. A sense of mounting dread seeps into the frames, removing traces of color until all that’s left is grey, brown and sometimes black. The production notes identify the setting as “the backwoods of West Virginia,” but the movie itself makes no attempt to clarify this; we just recognize the primal elements: mountains, water, snow, tress, rocks, clouds.
For a film that doesn’t care to mince words, the directness of the title is no surprise: screenwriter Matthew F. Jones’s entire plot, adapted from his own same-named novel, rests on a single bullet. The marksman: John Moon (Rockwell), who lives alone in a trailer in the woods, getting by on coffee, hunting and the company of his dog. While stalking deer one morning, John hears the patter of footsteps on the other side of some branches, and fires his rifle in their direction. We share his shock when the dead body turns out not to belong to a deer, but rather to a young woman. To escalate the situation even more, the lockbox John finds in the girl’s possession is jammed with stacks of money.
Admirably, there isn’t a legitimate scene of dialogue in A Single Shot until about fifteen minutes into the film—and even then, it’s a phone conversation, with our visual attention fixed solely on Rockwell. The movie is worth seeing for this set-up sequence alone, which combines a pair of generic concepts—a person stumbles upon a dead body; a person stumbles upon a case of stone-cold cash—and distills them down to pure physical exertion. When the plot kicks in, and people actually start talking to each other, the film loses most of its momentum, but it still has enough sections of terse, pointed physicality—a jarring throat-slitting in a motel room, a wildly overblown finale—that the overriding sensation of brute, blunt force rarely lets up.
Eventually, we learn the causes of John’s outdoorsman-like estrangement: his wife (Flight’s Kelly Reilly), a waitress, has separated from him, taking their young son with her. She has even served up divorce papers, which John, intent on repairing their relationship, responds to by hiring a plaid-wearing lawyer (William H. Macy) with some of the money he discovered. Family man that he is, John gives thousands of dollars to his wife, too—something she understandably considers strange, since he doesn’t have a job. But domestic squabbles soon become the least of John’s worries, as tense altercations with a handful of suspicious locals—a tattoo-covered Joe Anderson, a vicious Jason Isaacs, who was the deceased woman’s romantic partner—put John’s life, as well as the life of his wife and child, in intense danger.
Jones’ weakest writing probably involves Simon (Jeffrey Wright), John’s closest friend and a perpetual drunk. Wright’s normally a reliably scene-stealing character actor, using that voice of his to enliven moments of exposition, but in A Single Shot, he’s saddled with an unfortunate character, and his decision to disappear into Simon’s miserable demeanor—alcohol-soaked rage, speech muffled to the extreme by the chewing and spitting of tobacco—doesn’t do the film any favors. It’s the kind of character-actor performance that’s almost too scene-stealing: even the outstanding Rockwell, in predictably strong form here, seems to be taking a back-seat when Wright is emoting, as if the only the thing that matters in the scene is our knowledge that Wright is completely losing himself in this role.
Not that any of the other supporting performances—save for Ophelia Lovibond’s light, engaging work as the daughter of one of John’s neighbors—are particularly impressive. Most of these actors—and a lot of them are people who have been good in other films—feel out-of-place in this milieu, as if their whole preparation for the project consisted of watching Winter’s Bone the night before shooting. Rockwell’s the only one who seems in full control of his character, credibly doing away with his usual manic charisma and adopting the persona of a closed-off hermit. He also lends John a sad, even hopeless dimension: Reilly seems genuinely over him, his kid doesn’t take to him, and he doesn’t accept a promising job offer, so we’re forced to ask ourselves what this man has to look forward to if he comes out of this neo-noir scenario alive.
Rosenthal’s favorite image, one he returns to many times, is a profile shot of Rockwell behind the wheel; Rosenthal has cinematographer Eduard Grau (unexpectedly, the D.P. of Tom Ford’s exuberantly colorful A Single Man) rack-focus from the actor’s face to the mountain ranges seen through the driver’s-side window, and then back again to Rockwell. This back-and-forth battle gets at the inner turmoil of the character: every time he tries to take a step forward, to mend his relationships and end this escalating spiral of violence, the wilderness keeps pulling him back in.
Director: David M. Rosenthal
Writer: Matthew F. Jones
Starring: William H. Macy, Kelly Reilly, Sam Rockwell, Jeffrey Wright
Release Date: Sept. 20, 2013