While out hunting a deer, notorious poacher John Moon (a heavily-bearded Sam Rockwell) accidentally shoots and kills a young woman. As he searches for a place to dump the body, he stumbles upon her encampment and a box full of cash. Haunted by the dead woman’s image, John attempts to redeem himself by using the money to salvage what’s left of his tenuous marriage to Jess (Kelly Reilly), with whom he shares a son. But as the men who want that money begin to terrorize him, John is caught in a deadly (and dull) game of cat and mouse.
His reliance on his disloyal lawyer Pitt (William H. Macy) gets him into trouble with the ruthless criminal Waylon (an unrecognizable Jason Isaacs—long greasy hair and thick scruff) and his trashy lackey Obadiah (Joe Anderson). As he dodges Obadiah, whose escalating threats include killing his dog and threatening to kidnap his son, John learns about the money’s origin via his sort-of buddy, the perpetually drunk Simon (Jeffrey Wright, who is so excessively drunk acting that you can barely understand a single word he says—or slurs). Soon John is onto the trail of the dangerous Waylon, but not before he manages to endanger the random almost-girlfriend he has on the side (Ophelia Lovibond).
Director David Rosenthal was quickly drawn to Matthew Jones’ script (which he adapted from his novel of the same name) for its moody tone and poetic visuals. He had been eager to make an atmospheric thriller just like A Single Shot and relentlessly pursued this project. Rosenthal immersed himself in the material, drawing from Jones’ vivid descriptions a very bleak yet crisp landscape. Taking inspiration from similar pieces by Terrence Malick and the Coen brothers in his creation of this film, their influence is definitely felt (and that’s not entirely a bad thing).
The aesthetic approach used in A Single Shot gives it the feel of a western noir akin to Elmore Leonard’s Justified. There is a lawlessness to the isolated town that makes getting away with murder appear deceptively simple (we don’t see a single police officer in the film). John’s increasingly savage actions turn him into that anti-hero who is trying to survive more so than attempting to do the honorable thing (although he remains steadfastly chivalrous). But can you blame him when he is faced with such brutal enemies?
Unfortunately, Rosenthal’s focus on aesthetics and atmosphere distracts from the film’s story. The pacing becomes painfully slow, and the story’s exposition falls to the wayside. It is hard to follow what exactly is happening in the first half of the film. Not until half the characters have been killed off do we begin to understand the story. And the dreary world of the film is more likely to lull you into a deep sleep than pique your interest. This is especially true because the limited dialogue makes way for the somber lullaby of the score (by Atli Orvarsson) to induce a nap.
The film’s only real redeeming quality is the powerful performance by Sam Rockwell (his best at the Tribeca Film Festival this year when compared to A Case of You and Trust Me). He never broods too deeply or dwells too long on a decision. Rockwell is controlled and exacting, allowing you to decipher his motivations in the face of the obtuse storytelling. Jason Isaacs, too, is terrifying in a controlled manner, making him a worthy opponent for Rockwell’s John. Both actors give the film a strong enough backbone to make the film at least bearable (though not at all enjoyable).
Of course, plenty of cinephiles like these atmospheric dramas (see also: Hide Your Smiling Faces) and will find much about Rosenthal’s execution of these aesthetics appealing. Also, fans of Justified will revel in the similarities of style (although I assume Justified is still superior to this film). For all the rest, A Single Shot’s moodiness will be too unbearable.