A gun. A dead woman. A box of money. A (sort of) innocent man. A hunt. While David M. Rosenthal’s A Single Shot doesn’t shy away from some conventional-to-the-point-of-cliché plot points for his latest feature, the crime drama packs a punch thanks to its stellar cast, stunning cinematography, and a horror-tinged score that continually leaves its audience on edge. Oh, and the violence. Did we forget the violence? There’s violence.
Penned by Matthew F. Jones (who adapted his own novel for the script), A Single Shot is a suitably intense showcase for star Sam Rockwell’s dramatic chops. As lonely loser John Moon, the film rests on the actor’s ability to engage and excite his audience, a feat that he mostly pulls off with ease. A near-wordless opening sequence plunges us deep into both John’s day-to-day life and the shocking event that will turn everything upside down for him, as John sets off to illegally hunt deer in the quiet woods near his home. It should be a day like any other, but a tired and emotionally drained John gets turned around while pursuing a deer, and one of his shots makes contact with something other than his intended prey.
Rosenthal’s adept mix of beauty (Eduard Grau’s cinematography is frequently nothing short of gorgeous) and tension sets the tone for the entire film to come, and when John sobs over the bloody body of a woman who is inexplicably in the middle of the forest and who he has just accidentally shot, there’s no question of what’s to come or how the story will be told. But the accidental death is the least of John’s worries, because when he goes to hide her body near the rusted and abandoned big rig she appears to be squatting in, he finds a box of money and a series of clues that she wasn’t alone out there.
What follows is a tried and true bit of thriller – John, the hunter, becomes the hunted, as the dead girl’s boyfriend (Jason Isaacs, playing way against type) begins to chip away at him from afar, using such horrifying psychological tricks as, wait for it, prank phone calls. But is it really Isaacs’ Waylon who is coming after John? Or has his own guilty heart begun to break down? Rosenthal never quite toys with that notion enough, and when a series of twists get tossed in that help reveal who is really fucking with John, they only work because they’re bizarrely crammed with personal emotion. (Thanks to Jeffrey Wright, who shows up as an old friend of John’s who manages to make his personal struggle look like a goddamn cakewalk.) The film’s middle section sags even with the addition of some dark twists and turns, and it only manages to keep its audience because it throws in the occasional eye-popper of a scene.
Whatever the film may lack in its second act, Rosenthal and Jones more than make up for in its final third. All of the tension and violence that previously popped up intermediately throughout the film is pushed to the forefront, and the film’s last twenty or so minutes are a thoroughly white-knuckle affair. It’s an unsubtle turn in the film, with its muted color palate turning wild and red, Atli Orvarsson’s score turned up to nothing short of horror film levels, and what finally feels like a real threat to someone who is actually innocent in all of this, but it’s at least enough to make A Single Shot feel like more than just a one-off.
The Upside: Strong performances (especially from Sam Rockwell and Jeffrey Wright), beautiful cinematography, frequently jaw-dropping scenes of tension and violence, an inspired score, and one hell of a heart-pounding third act.
The Downside: A hammy and unnecessary turn from William H. Macy (of all people!), a mostly slack second act, and a relatively uninspired plot.
On the Side: IMDb shares that Michael Fassbender, Thomas Haden Church, Forest Whitaker, Alessandro Nivola, Emily Mortimer, Juliette Lewis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Terrence Howard, James Badge Dale, Juno Temple, and Leslie Mann were considered and cast in various roles during production but they dropped out. Whoa.