Rating: R (some strong violence, sexual content, nudity, language, and brief drug use)
Length: 116 minutes
Release Date: Apr. 25, 2013
Directed by: David M. Rosenthal
Stars: 3 out of 5
In the opening scenes of “A Single Shot,” (watch trailer) John Moon (Sam Rockwell) is out in the woods with his gun, hoping to catch a deer. It isn’t hunting season, so what he is doing is illegal, and he must be quiet and stealthy in his pursuit. He finally kills what he thinks is a buck but turns out to be a young woman. He frantically tries to help her back to her cabin, but she soon dies, leaving behind a lockbox full of money.
Moon’s wife Moira (Kelly Reilly) has left him because of his often antisocial behavior and inability to keep a job. He is desperate to win her back, so he takes the box of money from the dead woman and leaves, hoping that nobody will ever connect him to his accidental crime. The problem is that the money he took doesn’t belong to the woman; instead, it belongs to a couple of amoral thugs who come to town in search of their loot. When Moon uses some of the money to pay for a lawyer named Pitt (William H. Macy) to help him get his son back, the paper trail leads back to him.
When a man is in as much trouble as Moon is, he will naturally try to turn to family and friends for help. His only family has left him, so he seeks help from friends such as Simon (Jeffrey Wright), a barely functional alcoholic who seems suspicious of Moon. Moon can’t seem to trust anyone, not even his shady lawyer, Pitt. He desperately wants to go back to how things were before he took the money, but it is too late. He has set in motion a tragic chain of events that may bring him down, along with a few of the innocent people around him.
Rockwell has built a career on playing dark characters, particularly those who are either on the fringes of society or have just plain checked out from reality and no longer seem to be a part of any discernible social circle. Moon is somewhere closer to the fringes when the film begins, but he slowly unravels under the stress of everything that happens. By the end of the film, he is almost completely separated from society. His journey from one point to the other is made possible by Rockwell’s nuanced, layered performance, which stands out even despite the excellent performances of other actors in the film. In particular, Wright steals nearly every scene he in with his affected accent and dour take on a lifelong alcoholic who is almost always paranoid and drunk in equal measures.
The script was written by Matthew F. Jones and was based on his novel of the same name. It is interesting to note that in the book, the location was upstate New York, where Jones was largely raised. When he sat down to adapt the novel, he changed the setting to a poor, rural area in an unspecified part of the South. Jones himself now lives full time in Charlottesville, a charming city in Virginia. This could all be a coincidence, but it’s intriguing that the location of the story changed along with the location of the author. By moving the story to the deep South, Jones is able to add an element of crushing poverty into the mix, making the film darker than the novel. The nameless town in “A Single Shot” seems to have no trace of affluence.
The words “film noir” and “backwoods” are rarely used in the same sentence, because on paper, they don’t really belong together. “A Single Shot” proves that the mix can actually work; it is a film noir throwback set in the modern-day backwoods of what looks like the Appalachian Mountains. The film’s surprising location aside, many classic elements of film noir are present, including a shifty protagonist in Moon; a beautiful, tragic moll in his wife Moira; a thrilling, a juicy central mystery that often morphs the film into at thriller; and low lighting and unusual camera angles used to help maintain the overall dark mood. It’s a visually impressive meshing of two unlikely genres that helps make this a film worth watching, along with Rockwell’s tone-perfect performance.