– Summary –
Director : David M Rosenthal
Year Of Release : 2013
Principal Cast : Sam Rockwell, Jeffrey Wright, Kelly Reilly, Jason Isaacs, Joe Anderson, Ophelia Lovibond, Ted Levine, William H Macy, Amy Sloan.
Approx Running Time : 110 Minutes
Synopsis: After accidentally killing a young girl in the woods while out poaching, a lonely, poverty-stricken man, John Moon, discovers that she was in possession of a large sum of money. Hiding the body, taking the money and trying to reconcile with his estranged wife, John’s life rapidly spirals out of control when a number of people come looking for the missing loot.
What we think : Sam Rockwell remains one of the more underrated actors going around these days, sashaying from lite drama, to outright blockbuster, to low-budget thrillers, barley registering as a blip on the pop-culture radar. It’s a shame, because he makes A Single Shot worth watching – his ability to craft a character that’s both believable and empathetic, even with limited material, makes this slow-burn drama work even when it sputters and often outright stalls. A Single Shot is deliberately paced, well acted and lensed with a melancholy, tragic tone that echoes some of those gritty, urban 70’s crime thrillers, but for most of the time it only barely ekes out any interest whatsoever.
When you shoot someone, own up to it. Even if you’re broke.
It’s fair to say that Sam Rockwell has one of “those” faces – a face that people know from “that other film I saw”, but rarely remember his name. He’s something of a household name in many respects, because most of his major roles have been memorable in one form or another – he played the key villain in Charlie’s Angels and Iron Man 2, a psychotic criminal in The Green Mile, a spoof version of Star Trek’s “red shirts” in Galaxy Quest, and an isolated astronaut in Duncan Jones’ Moon, among many other film appearances – yet you’d never find him on any Hollywood A-List. Rockwell’s career has built up into a steady stream of quality roles, making even the most minor of parts identifiable through his laconic, slow-drawl manner and wry glint of wit in his eye. Anyone who enjoyed Moon, for example, will appreciate the man’s subtle turn of emotion, his ability to make every character different from the last. Personally, I find him to be one of the most underrated actors going about Hollywood these days, and I always try and seek out any film he’s in, just to watch him in it. A Single Shot, a film by director David M Rosenthal, finds Rockwell delivering a role that is neither heroic nor villainous; his character is all too human, and it’s this frailty and emotional wretchedness that gives him room to bring this character to life.
John Moon (Sam Rockwell) lives an isolated life as a poached in up-state New York, separated from his wife Moira (Kelly Reilly) and child after being unable to hold down a job. Penniless, he takes to hunting game in a national park; one day, while out hunting, he accidentally shoots and kills a young woman. Desperate to avoid trouble, John loots her small woodland shelter to discover the young woman had in her possession a case of money – approximately $100,000. Taking the money for himself, John tries to get local lawyer Daggard Pitt (William H Macy) to make Moira reconcile with him, and begins to flash his new-found wealth around. This draws the attention of some locals, particularly a man named Waylon (Jason Isaacs), who knew the woman John killed. As the days draw on, John begins to recieve threatening phone calls, his dog shot, and his life spiraling more and more out of control.
A Single Shot’s premise is fraught with all manner of ethical and moral dilemmas. You’re stone-broke, living off only what you can kill and eat, and desperate to be with your family again, and you stumble upon a large sum of money. Do you hand that money in? What if you’ve accidentally killed somebody as well? The great thing about A Single Shot is that nothing within it is ever black or white – it’s all manner of grey. This in itself provides plenty of gristle on which to gnaw as the ramifications of John’s accidental shooting of an innocent woman begin to take shape. The people John interacts with – his wife, his lawyer, his wife’s new boyfriend, for example – all have ulterior motives (as they always do in small country towns) for their behavior, and the lure of a large sum of money will drive any desperate people to do some pretty desperate things.
The film is scripted by Matthew F Jones, based on his own 1996 novel, so there’s a fair amount of familiarity with the characters on display here; one would also assume that the guy who wrote the book would be able to concoct a fairly adequate film screenplay from it, considering he would know what could be trimmed or not. The film has a reality, a core truth to its locale and characters that reeks of depth and perception of time and place of a quality nowhere near the level of modern blockbusters. This is a film that feels lived in, with Rockwell’s John Moon leading the charge. Coupled with Rosenthal’s direction, A Single Shot manages to make the scenario depicted feel like it could actually happen (and who knows, it probably has!). Yet there’s something missing, an intangible spark that would bring this brooding, melancholy, ultimately tragic tale of redemption, loss and grief to life.
The problem with the film is that it’s just too darn depressing. I know, I’m picking on an aesthetic, and it’s a critical element of my enjoyment of this film that I can’t easily justify. But I felt the film lacked an edge, even for its “lived in” visuals. The cast are all terrific, with Rockwell’s Moon a most inauspicious creation in terms of his moral center. He kills a woman, and instead of reporting it to the police, just dumps the body and takes her money. Then he has the stress of repercussions when the Bad Guys come looking for it. Rockwell, all bearded and unsettled, shoulders the moral ambiguity with his most gritty persona yet, and if you take anything away from this film other than how slow it all it, it’s his performance. Jeffrey Wright, Jason Isaacs, Kelly Reilly and Joe Anderson do well with their supporting roles, with Isaacs in particular channeling the badass with his usual panache. Wright, mumbling his way through the film as a drunkard friends of Johns, is forgettable as a character, yet memorable in his performance of it, and Reilly displays all the subtlety of a soap-star in her role of John’s estranged wife. William H Macy bobs up as a could-be-crooked lawyer, and Joe Anderson’s thuggish Obadiah, a fairly generic “local redneck” character, is charismatic but brief.
The ethical dilemma posed at the outset of A Single Shot is fascinating, yet the resolution plays out in slow motion. The film’s pacing is lethargic, even enough to test my patience, and I don’t think the story – or the characters aside from John himself – could support a film at two hours. Yes, it’s a character driven film, and one needs time to develop a bond with each character as he or she appears in order for their fate to be impactful in any way, but Rosenthal’s moody, atmospheric direction can’t elicit as much tension as needed from what transpires. The film looks depressing enough, with the moody blue tones and dark, oppressive overcast-cloud nature of the Northern landscape of New York, and coupled with this vague parallel with Bill Paxton’s A Simple Plan just becomes a slog midway through. Props to Rosenthal for sticking to his vision for the story, I guess, but it wasn’t one I could get my head around.
A Single Shot has moments where it works. Moments amongst the indifference I felt towards it, even in spite of Rockwell’s magnificent effort in the lead role; the film will appeal to some, I’m sure, but I just found it a little dull. If that sounds shallow, then so be it – I can’t help but feel that way towards this film’s desperate, non-conciliatory plot and characters, even when I know I’m seeing something that should appeal more than the latest tentpole blockbuster. If you’re after something different from the typical Hollywood slop, A Single Shot will probably be worth your time if you’re prepared to go with it, but be warned that it’s tough going almost the entire time.