It’s not an uncommon scenario, that pebble that triggers a landslide, but it is uncommon to see it directed as well as David Rosenthal has done with “A Single Shot” working from a taut script by Matthew F. Jones based on Jones’ novel.
John Moon lives alone in a trailer in the woods contemplating how to get his life back together. He’s been at sea since the family farm was lost and his wife Moira left him, taking their son with her. His only two goals are to farm again and convincing his wife to return. Unwilling and unable to accept help from anyone, he has difficulty holding a job and it is his subsistence living and anger issues that drove away his family. Moira has goals beyond her dead end waitressing job at the local diner. She wants more and he doesn’t.
Moon needs very little to survive as he can live off the deer in the woods, but one more poaching violation will send him to jail. First seen leaving his trailer with his shotgun, the camera slowly, deliberately tracks Moon through the dark and overgrown forest as he sights a deer. Carefully, skillfully he raises his gun and pulls the trigger. Certain he has hit his prey, the wounded deer has run off and now Moon must find it and put it out of its misery. The leaves rustle and twigs snap underfoot in this part of the day that is neither night nor dawn and he shoots again… but it wasn’t the deer.
Moon has accidentally shot a disoriented woman running through the woods after a car accident. As she lies dying, he contemplates his choices. His eyes tell us everything there is to know. Clearly an accident, one that befalls hunters on a too regular basis, his situation is complicated by his presence in the woods with a shotgun outside of the sanctioned hunting period. It is not the kind of weapon used to shoot rabbits. The fork in the road taken by Moon leads tantalizingly close to accomplishing all his goals when he finds her overturned car and in it a suitcase crammed with money – thousands upon thousands of dollars, enough to change his life. But there’s always a catch and that catch is in the shape of Waylon and Obadiah, owners of said suitcase.
Filmed with a dark palette, “A Single Shot” is a perfect little film noir, both tonally and thematically; the kind at which Americans used to excel and have now ceded primacy to Europeans, especially the French. This small movie creates tension from the opening shot and then gradually tightens the noose until the viewer is gasping for air. The pacing is deliberate and slow, darkening gradually and relentlessly even as Moon begins to see alternatives to his life choices and comes to understand some of his wife’s concerns. He desperately wants to change but obstacles in his path are becoming insurmountable.
The theme of a single bad act and its repercussions could easily descend into cliché but Rosenthal has had the help of a cast that should have been beyond the expectations of a small independent film. Sam Rockwell, an actor who has long been valued for the depth he adds to character roles, lives and breathes Moon. Almost unrecognizable in dress and appearance, his eyes reveal much of the story of this man, worn out and older in gait than he should be, stooped and stubborn, unable to sort the good in his life from the bad that was beyond his control. Rockwell is chameleon-like as an actor. Just compare this performance with that wonderful role he had in “The Way Way Back” where the lightness of his character is offset by its immaturity and eventual modicum of character growth. There is probably nothing that Rockwell can’t do at this point in his career.
Kelly Reilly, as Moon’s wife Moira, is fine in a little-developed role. Her little girl voice and quivering lip belie an iron will and strong self-conviction. William Macy plays the kind of character he loves, a sleazy small town lawyer with a bad wig. Rather over the top (and not just the hair piece), he adds some necessary comic relief, albeit without much subtlety. Joe Anderson as Obadiah is as nasty, creepy and revolting a villain as one could ask for. Just watching him on screen makes you want to bathe in disinfectant.
Jeffrey Wright, as Moon’s unreliable friend, embodies self-doubt and weakness. Wright is one of the great American actors of stage and screen capable of disappearing in a role, making himself all but indivisible from the character. And finally, Jason Isaacs, a remarkable British actor who slides easily into flawed heroic roles and complex villains on both sides of the Atlantic, is the bad guy whose mere presence sends a tsunami of fear throughout the town. Hidden in a full beard, like Rockwell, his eyes tell the story and reveal that there can be only one outcome with him.
Expertly edited by Dan Robinson with an atmospheric score by Atli Örvarsson, it is Eduard Grau’s cinematography that is as much a star of the film as the actors.
Don’t miss this excellent film that premiered first on VOD (an inexplicable pre-release). Rated R (for one particularly graphic sex scene). Opened Friday September 20 at the Laemmle NoHo.