Bleakly Unsettling Shot a Confident Backwoods Noir
John Moon (Sam Rockwell) lives in the deep backwoods of rural West Virginia. Out hunting one crisp morning, he confidently tracks a deer through the dense forest. Hearing a rustling of leaves behind him, he rapidly turns and fires, certain he’s hit his target.
He has, it’s just not the target he thought it was. A young woman suddenly lies before him gasping for breath; the light in her eyes dimming as she quickly dies cradled within his arms. John is devastated, aghast at what it he’s done. Yet he dares not to turn himself in to the police because he’s hunting illegally and has been given citations for poaching on three previous occasions, thus making what he’s just done some form of murder at worst, accidental manslaughter at the tragic best.
Granted, the box full of money he’s discovered with her is incentive to leave her, the unemployed former farmer with a wife (an underutilized Kelly Reilly) suing him for divorce realizing this cash could change all of their lives in ways that had been heretofore unimaginable. But a price still needs to be paid, John inadvertently killing the girlfriend of a ruthless ex-con (Jason Isaacs) who along with his partner Obadiah (Joe Anderson) has put the pieces together and knows what happened to his beloved as well as who it is who currently has his missing cash.
You can guess what happens from there, director David M. Rosenthal’s (Janie Jones) adaptation of Matthew F. Jones’s novel A Single Shot following a familiar path. The script, written by the author, is another one of those rural backwoods noirs concerning a relatively decent person who has unfortunately done a very bad thing for what he feels are the best of reasons only to face the most lethal of consequences. We’ve seen much of this before, numerous times, John’s saga of torment and hoped for redemption playing out exactly as I expected it to, and I’ve never read Jones’s book.
Thankfully, the movie is so well acted, so assuredly directed and so magnetically put together its routine obviousness doesn’t matter near as much as it otherwise would. Rockwell is perfect as the lead, inhabiting John without anything approaching trepidation, allowing all facets of the man’s character, good, bad and everything in-between, to be showcased with a raw vulnerability that’s masterful. There’s also some superb supporting work from the likes of Ted Levine, William H. Macy, Amy Sloan, Ophelia Lovibond and, of course, Isaacs, each of them having a significant scene that helps move the narrative forward. Best of all is an almost unrecognizable Jeffrey Wright, his scenes pulsating with a wretchedly disheveled eloquence that allows the story’s major themes to speak with a powerful, unsettling grace.
Rosenthal’s precise direction is free of any extra flourishes, the filmmaker refusing to allow the film to wallow in the inherent clichés or the obvious bits of melodrama stuck at the heart of the narrative. He deftly mixes cinematographer Eduard Grau’s (Arthur Newman) lush, painterly exteriors with Atli Örvarsson’s (Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters) stirring score, each combining together to give the picture a hypnotic allure I was easily swept up within. Rosenthal crafts tension without with subtle persuasiveness, the whole thing recalling, whether intentional or not, Carl Franklin’s 1992 classic One False Mood in both style and structure.
Comparisons to David Lowery’s stunner Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, also released this year, might be inevitable, but while aesthetics are similar the stories at the heart of each film couldn’t be more different. Rosenthal’s opus is down and dirty, reveling in the dark simplicity of its storyline, events unnervingly leading John to the only end possible. But even though the climax isn’t a surprise it’s still wonderfully staged, the last image right before the fade to black hauntingly eloquent. A Single Shot doesn’t raise the bar, doesn’t change the game, but it does hit the mark, the film speaking with a pensive and knowing precision well worth commending.
Film Rating: 3 (out of 4)