David M. Rosenthal’s film A Single Shot, now on Blu-ray from Well Go USA, may very well usher in a new subgenre that’s best be described as backwoods mumble noir. Full of all kinds of aw-shucks shoe-gazing, sudden violence, and a gradually unspooling mystery, the title definitely seems to fit. When John Moon (Sam Rockwell), recently separated from his wife and child, accidentally kills a young woman while poaching deer, it kicks off a downward spiral of bloodshed and retribution that bears comparison to movies like No Country for Old Men, A Simple Plan, and Winter’s Bone.
A Single Shot assembles a fantastic cast, composed of underappreciated performers, including Jeffrey Wright, Ted Levine, Jason Isaacs, and William H. Macy. Granted that last one is widely acclaimed, but the rest are always good, but usually overlooked.
We’re so used to seeing Rockwell play that wing-nut, man-child slacker that he does so well, that it’s easy to overlook how good a dramatic actor he really is. His performance here is what carries the entire movie. Ultimately he can’t save the picture, but he does his damndest. John isn’t just down on his luck, the world is raining a constant stream of crap directly onto his head. He lost his family farm, can’t hold a steady job—not that there are any jobs in this particular rural hamlet—and his wife left with his son. When he finds a box of cash with the dead girl’s things, it makes sense that he takes it, but you also know that he’s not going to be the only person who knows the money is there. It isn’t just that the universe is picking on John. He’s stubborn, way too proud, thinks he’s smarter than he is, and his hubris keeps him bogged down.
Most of A Single Shot is an almost fetishistic look at life in the small, broken down town. From John’s ramshackle trailer to the boarded up businesses to the run down diner that serves as the social hub, everything is grim, depressing, and oppressively bleak. Every surface you touch leaves a layer of grit on your fingers, and the biggest stumbling block of the film is that the painstakingly wrought setting takes precedence over the plot or characters.
You get the point Rosenthal and Matthew F. Jones, who wrote the screenplay and the novel the film is based on, are going for. The world of A Single Shot is rough and spare. You’re 14-minutes in before John utters a word, and aside from vomiting, he barely even blinks after killing a stranger. But all of this distracts from the story. John is in a middle of a mystery that he barely tries to solve. His family, his motivation, is in danger, but they vanish part way through the narrative. After long delays, taken up with extended shots of blue grey landscapes and ominous tones blaring over the top, John eventually stumbles through various situations that vaguely lead to an unsatisfying climax that is simultaneously both random and obvious.
A Single Shot is frustrating to watch because there are pieces that have real potential. The grizzled setting is perfect for this backwoods crime story, but there is simply too much attention focused there. Rockwell is great, but most of other characters mutter through their lines in barely comprehensible boondocks drawls. You’ve seen Scottish accents subtitled, and you need them here, especially during the many, many sinister sounding phone conversations. The sound mix is hugely out of whack on this disc, which doesn’t help your comprehension. You go from scarcely audible conversations to shrieking, faux-Hitchcock strings that make you eardrums bleed.
Buried somewhere in A Single Shot—the title is a bit of a misnomer, since John actually fires three shots—are the makings of a great movie, but there is simply a lot that needs to be trimmed away. If the film were 25 or 30 minutes shorter, you’d really have something. But all the bluster and meandering and shoe-gazing never amounts to what it should, what it could, and you walk away feeling that this film is a missed opportunity.
The bonus features on the Blu-ray are fine—better than some—but there’s nothing particularly impressive. A 26-minute making-of featurette is interesting enough. It delves into the origins of the book as well as the movie, which is a perspective that often gets lost and overlooked in the translation. Key players also chime in on everything from production to the color, lighting, and cinematography of A Single Shot. Aside from one segment where the actors talk about developing the unique accents the setting required, there’s not much here to differentiate this from other similar extras you’ve seen before.
23-mintues of cast and crew interviews round out the bonus material, but it’s really more of the same. The best bits have been distilled down into the making-of documentary. You do get to see a few funny, candid moments, like Rockwell, who is getting over a cold, snorting like crazy to clear his nostrils, only to realize he’s being filmed. Again, not bad, but unless you’re totally in love with A Single Shot, nothing here stands out.