David M. Rosenthal’s A Single Shot joins the ranks of some superior 2013 thrillers, the uniting factor being their complete grasp of a sense of place and time and their ability to unconditionally exploit their setting for the benefit of the story and characters. Mud, The Frozen Ground, Scenic Route and now this poetic backwoods chiller all place a compelling central character in a potentially life threatening ordeal, surrounds them with superior supporting players and executes their motives and actions with fluidity and respect. This year has so far seen a resurgence in this type of yarn – a stripped down, character based story that extracts its involving tenseness through simple actions, not bombast and explosions.
For A Single Shot, Matthew F. Jones adapts his own novel which can often be the kiss of death for any film in such a situation. Though I have not personally read his book, it’s clear he’s handled his material with grace and dignity. The dialogue is natural and not overstuffed and most importantly, it doesn’t play out like a work of literary fiction but instead, a thoroughly cinematic effort.
Also an interesting choice is when some of these characters deliver their lines; the employ of a deep southern drawl (often accompanied by drunken slurring) can render certain words incomprehensible. While this certainly adds a layer of realism to the proceedings, it does take the risk of making the effort as a whole indecipherable and confusing. How A Single Shot avoids this pitfall is with its grasp on these scenes and the sequences that precede and follow them. We are at least somewhat aware of the characters’ motivations and how they fit into place so the fact we miss a word here and their holds little bearing on the greater arcs at play.
Of these threads, at the center is always Sam Rockwell’s John Moon, a poacher living off the land while trying desperately to get enough of his life together to reconcile with his estranged wife and their young son. It’s on a typical hunt on an equally typical day that his fortunes both plummet and inflate with, yes, a single shot. Set in motion is a series of poor choices and collisions with dangerous, scheming men who have no love lost for whoever is responsible for their reversal of fortunes.
Lost in a hillbilly beard, mangy hair and backwater drawl, Rockwell delivers what is absolutely one of his best performances and considering his already auspicious resume, it isn’t a claim I lay lightly. This is a living, breathing individual, not an A-lister traipsing around in facial hair and one whose choices, or lack thereof, have dire consequences. This is an inherently flawed and broken man, but one we want to see rise above the hell he has created for himself.
The remainder of the thesps who round out the cast also never miss a beat and all serve to elevate Rockwell, who in turn bolsters them. On the side of the wicked we get two outstanding turns by the mostly overlooked Jason Isaacs and up and comer Joe Anderson. They play two former cellmates who are out to find the man responsible for the theft of their drug money and whether alone or together, they emanate an innate aura of malice.
Anderson (who some may have seen on the unfortunately short lived found footage television series The River) shares an early scene with Rockwell after he makes an ill advised venture to his ex’s home only to find him making friendly with the babysitter. The tense scenes that follow don’t have anything surface level that would indicate bad things to come, but the subversive interplay between them is worth the price of admission alone.
Jason Isaacs, on the other hand, has been delivering deliciously evil villains over the course of his career, the most exposed of which would certainly be his perfectly realized interpretation of slimy Harry Potter antagonist Lucious Malfoy. Though often cast in roles such as that, here he crafts a different vein of monster, lost in a mane of hair and a weathered face. He isn’t on screen for long but he makes us remember every scene and his service to the absolutely gripping climax is as invaluable as they come. The final sequences’ stakes, the pacing and the performances culminate into some of the most white knuckle filmmaking of the year.
Inhabiting the grey area in terms of scrupulous morals (in addition to John Moon of course) is Jeffrey Wright as a perpetually drunk old friend of Moon’s and William H. Macy as a “simple small town lawyer.” Then we are treated to great female leads in the form of Kelly Reilly (who is proving to be a name to watch after the fantastic turn in last year’s Flight) and Ophelia Lovibond as the daughter of a family friend. I found Wright in particular to be dynamite, certainly adhering to the aforementioned slurring hillbilly style of line delivery. His fate may be a tad predictable and overblown but everything preceding it reminds us why he still has a career.
If A Single Shot stumbles anywhere it would be in its final scenes, which are so on the nose it could be considered out of focus. There is nothing subtle about its imagery and metaphors but with such immensely strong work from everyone in front of and behind the camera, it’s easy to forgive, though tough to overlook entirely. Embraced by the bleak mountain terrain, perforated by instances of brutal violence and anchored unequivocally by Rockwell, A Single Shot is well worth a look if for nothing than the fact that it serves its story and characters with a rare level of reverence and takes them on a journey that is equal parts satisfying and devastating.