They say that simplicity is a powerful tool in the cinema, and it’s used to great effect in A Single Shot. Here is a film without a complex story, with only one character who has more than an ounce of depth, and yet it still manages to be a relatively effective movie. How does that work? Well, it plays strongly to the emotions, has some great acting, and has a film noir feeling about it, even without a complicated plot.
The film stars Sam Rockwell as John Moon. Recently separated from his wife and kid — she moved out — he spends his days doing odd jobs and poaching wildlife in the woods behind his trailer. The film opens without any dialogue, and it gives a perfect feeling of isolation as we watch John go about his hunting. He chases a deer, fires a couple of times, is startled, turns around, and shoots once more. On the ground is a girl, dead. Near her, thousands of dollars in a case. Nobody is around. He takes the money and hides the girl. He’s said one word, a profanity upon seeing the body. There’s still no dialogue.
As the film progresses, a couple of things become clear. The first is that John really wants his family back. He hires a lawyer (William H. Macy) in hopes that he can delay the divorce process long enough to win back his wife’s heart. Second, we find out that somebody (or somebodies) knew about the money, and he, she, or they want the money back. John’s dog is killed, he receives threatening phone calls, and soon enough we’ve got a thriller on our hands.
Now, the film doesn’t have a sustained sense of tension. You’re not going to be on the edge of your seat for its entirety, and you’re rarely even going to have a sense of fear for its characters. There’s not a lot of mystery to it — you know at least who one of the criminals is almost from the get-go — and while there are a couple of twists, they don’t play out like some big reveal happened. A Single Shot is a subdued movie, one in which its character is simply attempting to fix his family life and find whoever is threatening him.
This is all absorbing and spellbinding. If director David M. Rosental does nothing else, he at least creates a fabulous atmosphere. You feel as if you’re in a backwoods small town. It comes across as authentic. Everyone knows everyone else, and sometimes the people sitting across the bench at the diner know more about your life than you do. This provides a great location for a thriller. Anyone could be in on it. If one person knows you (accidentally) killed a girl and took thousands of dollars, then anyone else could, too.
There’s nothing fancy or particularly stylish to A Single Shot. It’s been photographed beautifully — dark and moody — and edited for efficiency and clarity. The story moves along briskly and never tries to confuse. There are moments of genuine drama, such as a scene in which Jeffrey Wright tries to win a Best Supporting Actor nomination for a lengthy, drunken monologue directed toward Sam Rockwell. The joy is in the details and in the individual scenes.
What might keep Wright from that Oscar nomination, and what could stop any of the actors, save for Sam Rockwell, from getting any accolades for their performances is how thinly written most of the characters are. All of the men come across as slimy and disgusting, and it’s only for that reason that this deeply flawed, yet kindhearted protagonist comes across as likable. By comparison, he has to, because he doesn’t make your skin crawl when you see him. The women all exist to be MacGuffins, backdrops, or corpses.
And that’s a shame, because the actors all do good work. Rockwell in particular is impressive, playing a man who has lost everyone, has killed a woman, and is trying to regain his family and place in the world. William H. Macy’s lawyer character is quirky and for a time feels out of place. Jeffrey Wright gets to steal two scenes, and that’s the extent of his role in A Single Shot. Kelly Reilly plays the wife, Jason Isaacs and Joe Anderson play two suspicious looking men — who wind up as interchangeable; you’ll see what I mean.
This isn’t happy movie, and it’s not going to be one you walk away from with a smile on your face. Its tone is almost solely grim, there are no jokes and few moments of levity, and the ending is haunting. The film accomplishes all of this in a simple, effective manner. It’s not looking to showboat, and it doesn’t want to stand out from the crowd. It wants to blend in, catch you off-guard, and then absorb you in its sense of place and atmosphere, and with its noir-lite story about a man with money and somebody who wants it back.
A Single Shot is a movie that’s not going to be terribly thrilling, but it offers a few moments of suspense, a couple of great scenes of drama, and a fantastic sense of place and atmosphere. It has solid actors playing generally underwritten characters, and it contains a dark tone throughout. It’s not a great film, but it’s a solid one, and you’re at all interested in seeing it, I think it’ll be worth your time, as long as you’re okay without smiling for a couple of hours.