Film Review: A Single Shot

Sam Rockwell delivers another outstanding performance in this saturnine meditation on greed set in backwoods Appalachia.

A dark, brooding movie laden with menace and despondency, A Single Shot can’t hope to attract wide audiences, but it would hold its own on a triple bill with Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan and Paul Schrader’s Affliction, if anyone could sit through so much aesthetic despair. David Rosenthal’s adaptation of Matthew F. Jones’ novel is harrowingly satisfying pulp, or noir, if you prefer: the stuff Jim Thompson, David Goodis and Patricia Highsmith would crank out for two cents a word in the middle of the last century, and directors Hitchcock, Truffaut and Peckinpah would mold into cinematic classics. A Single Shot isn’t quite that, but it’s a good yarn and a clever, if idiosyncratic, piece of filmmaking.

Idiosyncratic, in the sense that Rosenthal and Jones, who also wrote the screenplay, eschew exposition. There’s no set-up and little backstory, at least not in the traditional sense, so audiences must piece the story together as it unfolds. There’s a further caveat. Set in the mountains of West Virginia (filmed in Vancouver), the characters have thick accents and mumble, and they talk about people and events important to the plot but never dramatized. It’s easy to lose your concentration and, like a distracted hiker, find you’ve wandered off the path deep into the woods.

The story isn’t complicated, however. A down-on-his-luck farmer, John Moon (Sam Rockwell), living hand-to-mouth in a trailer in the hollow and poaching deer to survive, shoots and kills a young woman who, inexplicably, has been living in a makeshift lean-to at the bottom of an abandoned mining pit. Moon has been hunting off-season on restricted land, so he’s at fault despite that the death is clearly accidental. Then he finds, equally inexplicably, a cash box full of hundred-dollar bills hidden in the folds of the woman’s sleeping bag and blankets. Panicking, but tempted by money he desperately needs to save his marriage and restart his life, Moon hides the body and takes the stash. Of course, there are evil people who believe the money belongs to them, and in small-town backcountry Appalachia, it’s not too hard, even for meth-addled hillbillies, to figure out who might have it.

Sam Rockwell is superb as Moon, a fundamentally good man who has lost his way; the actor, in a role diametrically opposite that of slacker Owen in this summer’s The Way Way Back, evokes Moon’s confusion and frustration without condescension—credit Rosenthal and Jones, too, for not overplaying the American Gothic shtick. The entire cast hit their marks, with William H. Macy providing comic relief as a grotesque backwoods lawyer in bad toupee and plaid jackets. Cinematographer Eduard Grau captures the desolation that creeps in with the fog—these woods are haunted dark and deep—and David Brisbin’s production design is spot-on, from the local greasy spoon to the waste dumps despoiling the forest.

Rosenthal’s previous movie, Janie Jones (featured in FJI’s September 2011 issue) was well-received, and A Single Shot should get solid reviews. A few plot points are contrived and, as noted above, others so understated that casual viewers will end up relying on the film’s atmospherics to follow the narrative. But Rosenthal and his crew know how to set mood and build a sense of dread that grabs us as much as it does Moon. A man makes a terrible mistake, discovers he has been spiraling downward for a long time, struggles to find some sort of redemption—vintage noir with just enough violence to remind us that cautionary tales are often scary ones.