Published Sep 19, 2013As the title suggests, A Single Shot is set into motion when John (Sam Rockwell), a poacher hunting animals illegally in the mountains, accidentally shoots and kills a woman. While attempting to hide the body — a morally abject act that traditionally sets the wheels of neo-noir fatalism in motion within the American crime genre — he stumbles upon a lock box filled with money. Rather than leave the find or address the accidental shooting with local law enforcement, he takes the cash, hoping to use it to win back the affections of his estranged wife, Moira (Kelly Reilly).
As written by Matthew F. Jones (who also wrote the novel upon which it's based), this ode to futility is pared down to the basics, eschewing telling thematic metaphors and contrived subplots in favour of gritty, simplistic exchanges simmering with the unspoken tension of John's actions and choices. The focus is that of John's unwittingly self-destructive path, throwing some of his newly acquired wealth at a less than reputable local lawyer (William H. Macy) to help him potentially avoid the divorce his wife is keen on.
Being preoccupied with his immediate needs, John doesn't realize that throwing money around in a small town — where he's known as a bit of a backwoods screw-up — will draw unwanted attention, which becomes inescapable when he begins receiving threatening phone calls and finds objects from the scene of the crime in his trailer.
Interestingly, Sam Rockwell's depiction of a man trapped in an escalating spiral of criminality and threatening behaviour is subdued and defeatist rather than anxious or frenzied. It's an understated approach, one reiterated by David M. Rosenthal's established tone, allowing scenes to linger on troublesome character exchanges, cutting to landscape imagery rather than heightening or exaggerating the emotional plight.
Nature and the natural order force the story forward with little surprise or deviation from the expected formula. That the dialogue of the genre is pre-set merely complements the asserted futility of trying to extricate oneself from an inevitable fate. A Single Shot is as much a text about the Western frontier as modern context, having subtle hints of economic limitations and desperation, which are noted when we learn that John lost his land and his livelihood long before the titular act led to a foregone outcome.
Very little about this slow burning cultural observation surprises, nor is it intended to. It's merely a sturdy assessment of impending doom, using atmosphere and languid takes to make moody and occasionally beautiful the sense of purposelessness and lack of hope that limited opportunity insert into an already fractured social lexicon. (eOne)