Over the last couple months I have started, in my halting, not-remotely-consistent way, to bring you a selection of reviews for movies that are available on demand (under the “VOD review” tag). I’m tired of people complaining about the state of cinema when it is, in fact, easier than ever to see quality movies, thanks to in-home programming, and to that end, I’m making a point of including reviews of on demand movies. So far it’s been an even spread between pretty great, decent, and really fucking unpleasant, but with A Single Shot, adapted by Matthew F. Jones from his own novel, we can chalk another one up in the “pretty great” category.
Starring Sam Rockwell as John Moon, a reclusive backwoodsy guy who survives on subsistence hunting, A Single Shot plays out over the few days following An Incident in the Woods. Moon, poaching on state land, aims and fires on what he assumes is the deer he’s tracking but which turns out to be a teenaged girl squatting in an abandoned quarry. The opening minutes of A Single Shot are compelling, from Rockwell’s grizzled face—this is not the slick and smiling Sam Rockwell of Seven Psychopaths or The Way Way Back—to the single word of dialogue: a broken sighed “sorry” as Moon inters the girl in an old storage container along with the stuffed animal he found in her shelter. That line was everything that is great about Rockwell as an actor. It stutters out like an afterthought, pitched almost exactly on the same level as his boot scraping against metal, a footnote to the hollow expression in his eyes. Rockwell is a super charismatic actor who does well in flashy character parts, so it’s easy to forget he has this depth of leading-man command in him, but he controls the opening frames of A Single Shot without ever looking like he’s exerting himself.
Among the girl’s possessions Moon discovers a box of cash, which he takes. He’s dirt poor—literally, everything in his world is covered in grime—and his wife has left him, taking their young son with her, so the lure of free money is too much to resist. He promptly goes into town—some hopelessly shitty locale meant to be Rural, USA (filmed in Canada, for irony)—and shares his largesse with his soon-to-be-ex-wife (English actress Kelly Reilly, Flight, proving utterly chameleonic), even as he consults a lawyer (William H. Macy) about “getting his family back”. In his efforts to woo back his wife, Moon visits her temporary residence to deliver deer meat and the money, which is where he encounters “the Hen”, a local scumbag (Joe Anderson, The Crazies). After that, it’s all downhill, for everyone up to and including the dog.
Moon’s grief co-exists with his determination to win back his wife and his previous melancholy over the loss of his family’s farm (which seemed to happen some years in the past). Rockwell plays Moon without any loud overtures—he raises his voice only once in the entire movie—and with a stubborn pride that translates to a willingness to break the law and poach for his food, but won’t unbend enough to accept a job working on the farm his family once owned. It starts out as a steely performance but unravels along with Moon’s life, as Rockwell begins easing off the pressure valve containing Moon’s inner rage and grief. It’s a really, really brilliant job on Rockwell’s part.
The movie is slow, but at just under two hours it isn’t a chore to sit through, and director David M. Rosenthal (See This Movie) does a nice job of invoking Moon’s crushing poverty and circumstances through oppressive grey skies and an overall sense of narrowness, despite the vastness of the mountain forests surrounding him (aided in part by the decision to film in letterbox format). The acting is top notch across the board, particularly from Rockwell and Jeffrey Wright as a local drunk, and even pedigreed actors like Jason Isaacs and William H. Macy manage to disappear into their shit-stain characters. My only real complaint is that Atli Ovarsson’s (Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters) score is at times horror-movie aggressive and comes across as inappropriate in moments that are otherwise intimate and contained.
A Single Shot is a tense and nerve-wracking thriller, effective without frills, anchored by Sam Rockwell’s stellar performance. It’s a worthwhile, character-driven film for adults and by adults—exactly the kind of thing you people keep complaining is missing in cinema these days. Except it’s right there, available in your living room. So stop whining and watch it.