A Single Shot (2013) Film Review, a movie directed by David M. Rosenthal and starring Sam Rockwell, William H. Macy, Ted Levine, Kelly Reilly, Jason Isaacs, Joe Anderson, Jeffrey Wright, Ophelia Lovibond, Melissa Leo, Amy Sloan, W. Earl Brown, Heather Lind, Christie Burke, Jenica Bergere, and Lana Giacose.
The very first image, as the movie opened, was a lingering shot of a very dense grove of mature evergreens, and I felt my heart sink. A good sign. I only speak for myself, when I say that to stand before such a sight is very foreboding. As you stand at its edge, adjusting your focus and contemplating other routes, what, at first, seems like a solid log wall, becomes an endless maze; deep, dark and claustrophobic. There is a reason you have to go in, of course; so you stay mindful of your goal, and press on. Once you do go in, it can be outright pleasant, at times, but that initial pause just cannot be helped. A Single Shot is a neo-noir psychological thriller; intent on provoking viewers as much with its atmospheric scenery, as its plot or characters. If I were to assume that I am not alone, in my reaction to such an opening image, then the film establishes and encapsulates itself, effortlessly, from frame one.
John Moon (Sam Rockwell) had awakened to what seemed like a typical morning and headed out to a Deer hunt. When that hunt results in the accidental shooting death of a young woman, and his subsequent scrambling uncovers a small fortune nearby, any claim that John’s life had just taken a severe turn would have been an understatement. As we are taken back and introduced to that life, however, the assessment about that morning’s events could be changed to “the new normal.” In short order, after a tip from his oldest friend (Jeffrey Wright), John’s preoccupation had switched from guilt ridden panic, to preventing a divorce from his estranged wife (Kelly Reilly). Once informed of her intentions, he sets about hiring an attorney (William H. Macy) and providing support for both her and their infant son – all with the money he had just found. It was a switch in priorities, suggesting that an accidental killing, and ill-gotten cash, had amounted to mere additions to a train-wreck already in progress.
A Single Shot was set in rural West Virginia, in and around the kind of small town that makes for an even smaller community. So when unseen tormentors began stalking John, laying claim to the money, him suspecting new/ unfamiliar faces was a no brainer; particularly when those faces belong to visibly unsavory types like Waylon (Jason Isaacs) and Obadiah (Joe Anderson). When the threat extended to his wife and son, however, John’s fear gave way to paranoia, as local elements – perhaps some close to him – had to be involved. Everyone, from his attorney, to the owner of the diner, seemed to know at least a little bit about something regarding his recent developments. For someone like John, living out on the fringe, his small community may well have become a very dense grove of evergreens.
The beauty of writer Matthew F. Jones (based on his novel) and director David M. Rosenthal’s collaboration was in turning the ordinary/ everyday into something sinister. Everything, from an old friend dropping by with party girls, to driving past a lone vehicle heading the other way on a deserted back road, provided a degree of tension. At no point, even at its climax, was A Single Shot sensational; its effectiveness borne by the relatability of its characters and circumstances, with no Hollywood ending, for better or worse, to serve as a self-justification. Anyone who remembers some classic X-Files episodes may have an appreciation for the kind of atmosphere the Vancouver locations brought to those stories. With Vancouver used as West Virginia for this production, cinematographer Eduard Grau has created a visual narrative to match the film’s plot and characterizations; at certain points, telling the story through visuals alone. My only real qualm with the production was over the score. Atli Orvarsson‘s music complimented the film’s tone well enough but it was often intermittent. Punctuating long periods without soundtrack, his music effectively tipped off the viewer as to the approach of the film’s twists, turns, and major moments.
The cast of A Single Shot was top notch. Sam Rockwell has presented the viewer, in the form of John Moon, with a man that is simply incapable of reconciling his devotion to family with his compulsion to live on his own terms; an attention to detail with short sightedness and outright carelessness; doing what he believes is right with his actual capabilities. Kelly Reilly’s portrayal of the estranged wife went beyond a mere figure of redemption or source of misery for John Moon. For him (and the viewer), she was a loving wife and devoted mother who had given in to frustration over the sense that there was no longer a future with John. William H. Macy, as always, demonstrated the ability to project a presence beyond his character’s physicality or station, which made him something of a wild card. Jason Isaacs risks type-casting as the heavy but was well cast in A Single Shot as the kind of man you just don’t lock eyes with, someone capable of anything. It was Jeffrey Wright, however, as John Moon’s longtime friend Simon, that topped the supporting cast. His characterization was, all at once, potent and pathetic, framed by choices and circumstances not all that dissimilar to John’s. Wright, by completely losing himself in his role, exemplified that which best served the film: the authenticity of its characters and setting.
There may be some skepticism regarding this portrayal of a rural, backwoods community but as someone who resides in just such a setting, I can vouch for the film’s authenticity. It touched on matters like changing economic realities, forcing many into desperate action; either in finding new ways to stay afloat/ get ahead, or stubbornly holding on to all they have ever known. Violence, substance abuse, and sex, serving as means by which many youngsters deal with boredom and low prospects, was also shown; while others, who do have prospects, still manage to find love with all the wrong people. I knew/ know of someone representative of pretty much every character populating A Single Shot. Even the dialogue, delivered in a casually paced dialect that was sometimes hard to follow, reflects a production more concerned with getting things right than maximizing audience share.
From beginning to end, A Single Shot was not made with mass appeal in mind. It did not pretend to offer a hero to root for, set up a high stakes noble cause, or conceal the ultimate villain for the sake of a plot twist. Its story was told honestly, effectively, and to a logical end; consistent with its themes and tone. Full immersion of the viewer, through tactile visuals, and empathetic characterization, was the goal here; with the question of whether everything/ everyone turned out as they should have, left to the viewer. Whatever answers audience members come up with, A Single Shot (and that question) is likely to stay with them.
It has stayed with me. The opening image brought back feelings about facing dark woods. On future occasions, when hunting or trekking brings me to just such a sight, I may very well think of this film.