At first glance it is easy to think A Single Shot is a pretty enough, moody enough, well acted retread of themes and styles from Shallow Grave, A Simple Plan, No Country For Old Men or Winter's Bone and you'd be forgiven for thinking that because there is some element of truth in it. When it comes to plot and stylistic originality you won't find it here. What you will find is an engaging and expertly, if sometimes a little too authentically, played character study disguised as a generic, backwoods, crime thriller. So, my first piece of advice to you is to throw out the plot. Don't engage, as you normally would, through what the characters are doing but more with who the characters are.
The story, such as it is, focuses around Sam Rockwell's character, John Moon. Estranged from his wife Moira, played by Kelly Reilly (Sherlock Holmes), he lives near to some conservation land, where he routinely goes hunting, despite being caught and charged for doing so on numerous occasions. He's a simple, proud man of few words just trying to put his life back together. While out hunting on this land one morning, trying to catch a deer, he accidentally shoots a woman who, he later finds out, is carrying a ton of cash with her. Despite being definitely distraught at his accidental actions, he knows that to report them would mean jail time. Instead he hides the body, takes the money and is determined to get his life, meaning his wife and child, back. However, the money, of course, is linked to a web of unsavoury characters who, one by one, try and get their hands on it. Tobacco is chewed, lines are mumbled in thick, heavy accented drawls and bodies pile up. Will John Moon come out on top or is his demise inevitable?
The press release describes the film as a tense and atmospheric game of cat and mouse and if that was the honest intention of the film then, I am sorry to say, it fails. It's too slow moving, too drenched in melancholy strings and blue, grey, damp photography. The characters aren't menacing or threatening enough and, more often than not, the tension is lost as you are straining to understand what the hell is going on as some terrific actors grumble, twitch and spit through thick beards and thicker accents. I like to believe, though, that the film is more than that. More than a generic cat and mouse thriller about a bag of money and some grubby but pleasingly quirky hillbillies. It might just be his acting and his endless watchability, but I think the film is most successful as an in-depth and tragic character study of Sam Rockwell's John Moon. Studying and delving in to, as it does, ideas of lost opportunity, loss of love, pride coming before a fall, having the strength to survive, betrayal, fear, not being able to see the wood for the trees (which is indicated in several nice visual clues) and making your bed and damn well having to lie in it. On this level the film succeeds handsomely and Rockwell, also serving as producer on the film, gives a, at first, gruff and almost monosyllabic and unsympathetic performance that grows, over the running time, into a tragic, sometimes heart wrenchingly unlucky and down trodden character that you root for to, some how, find a way out of his predicament, even though your brain can't find one and you probably know that an easy resolution will not be forthcoming. He has surrounded himself well with the cream of character actors, the sort of 2nd tier players who are a sheer delight to just recline and watch act.
William H Macy, sporting an outrageously bad toupee, a suspect moustache, a sports jacket worthy of a scuzzy car salesman from the 50s and affecting a handicap in the form of a damaged arm and limp, gives a performance that dances neatly along the line of parody and awards worthy that he, and his peers, have so perfected in their work with the Coens. He is weasley, sinister, pathetic, dangerous, unnerving and humorous all rolled into one and the film could've used a lot more of him.
The film also features great but, sadly, tiny performances from Ted Levine, Jason Isaacs and Melissa Leo who, I doubt, get much more screen time, combined, than you'd be easily able to count on two hands. The only other stand out actor worth a mention being, the always worth the price of admission, Jeffrey Wright. His performance, as a wild, reckless, drunkard friend of John Moon is fantastic and combines almost every tick, twitch and technique an actor can deploy to best portray an alcoholic red neck. The only downside to this is, as the film enters its third act, Wright shows up to deliver some important plot information but it gets buried under piles of grime, dribble, tobacco, alcoholic slurring, an indecipherable accent and a crap flecked thicket of facial hair. As superb and as delightful as the mud smeared technique is, it's this scene that almost derails the film, that is if you are still trying to figure out what is going on but, I've already told you, the plot is not important.
Much like the plot, though, the downfall in the direction is that the film feels all too familiar. From the colour palette to the score (which features the, too often used, discordant pizzicato strings) nothing here feels different from something you've seen a hundred times before and while the techniques on display are exemplary, the lack of anything new can make parts of the, already slow, film drag.
That being said it does feel authentic and atmospheric. The set dressing, the costumes, the location and the lighting also do their part to help you feel the cold, the damp, the dirt and the drink.