Deep Woods Isolation
The initial atmospheric dark blues and fog that open A Single Shot signify the impending pervasive mood of its West Virginian backwoods location. For a while, it’s just a man, his gun, and the flickering movement of deer at which he confidently aims. It’s peaceful and instinctual, and through its darkened veneer, requests use of your ears, to hear the birds slowly going to sleep and the echoes of a gunshot implying a desolate, uninhabited forest. It’s the loud, human shriek following this bulleted reverb where things spiral gravely from serenity to worry to paranoia.
Our scruffy hunter is John Moon (such a wonderful outdoor name, played by Sam Rockwell) and he quickly finds himself a woman’s corpse and a box stacked with wads of bills. Disobeying rational thought, John hides the body and begins shelling out Ben Franklins to locals, suspicious to say the least. Directed by David Rosenthal from the novel and script by Matthew F. Jones, A Single Shot devolves into a game of haunted cat and mouse between John and the mysterious, shady figures who want their money back. This is a bleak town, where archetypes and caricatures reside in diners and motels, where no one likes speaking the truth except when their collar’s grabbed or their head feels a rifle’s butt end.
John tries to ease his burdened conscience by attempting to win back his separated wife Jess (Kelly Reilly), offering help to babysit his son. Both John and the film treat them as props, temporarily diluting his panic and loneliness. Quoting aphorist Mason Cooley, “living alone makes it harder to find someone to blame,” and John, in his trashy trailered home, finds isolation more implicating in each exponential scare tactic: breathy phone calls, ransacked rooms, broken windows. The only shoulder he leans upon is his hot shower.
Eventually we get faces to these terroristic deeds: a leather jacketed drug kingpin (Jason Isaacs) and his crony (Joe Anderson) who writhes with two parts both icky and delusional. But Rosenthal overplays his hand in these delicate proceedings, utilizing a stringy score from Atli Orvarsson that sounds like a horror film and hand feeds the intended emotional response. The buildups to his reveals are finely crafted, but most times it’s as if nature’s thick quiet doesn’t justify the climactic slow turn around the corner. It feels more farcical than representational.
And often that distinction seeps into the horror genre, which is always a balancing act between attaining empathy and quelling improbability. It is difficult to evoke the former, and more difficult to even classify this kind of film, which has the substance of a thriller but none of the pace. William H. Macy shows up in a horrid toupee as a corrupted community lawyer and Jeffrey Wright stumbles into a few scenes, quite literally, as John’s drunken misogynistic friend, whose country southern drawl is often incomprehensible. These types of characters can add color and depth to a bitter nowhere town like this, but here they offer more shades of gray.
It is Rockwell who keeps A Single Shot buzzing along though, an immersive actor who always seems to add new levels to his often muted, distant performances. Far away from his kindred spirit in the summer indie The Way, Way Back, John Moon seems equally appropriate for Rockwell, camouflaged and indiscriminate, an everyman surrounded by nature. At some points though, it’s hard to tell whether Rosenthal is more intrigued by his subject or the wild gray and green expanse that surrounds him. The camera continuously toggles focus from Rockwell’s nervous face to the vast forest, a prompt metaphor for a plodding film that can’t quite keep still.
- The Many Roles of Sam Rockwell (movies.answers.com)
- A Single Shot: When bad movies happen to good actors (theglobeandmail.com)