While a great showcase for the acting talents of star Sam Rockwell – an actor who needs more leading roles than just the character work he knocks out of the park every time – the backwoods thriller A Single Shot misinterprets “slow burn” as “illogically stalling.” It aspires to be Winter’s Bone or Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan, but instead of creating a tightly paced thriller it devolves into illogical and obvious cliché almost as soon as the story is set up.
Poaching deer where he shouldn’t be going in the first place, down on his luck John Moon (Rockwell) mistakes a young woman living out of a dilapidated overturned trailer in the middle of the woods for prey. In the trailer, John finds a hidden stash of cash that he decides to keep for himself in hopes of using it to straighten out his impending divorce. While John starts blowing the cash to try and buy back the affections of his wife (Kelly Reilly) and infant child, the man who the money originally belonged to – and the dead girl’s pissed off, tattooed up, fresh out of prison boyfriend, played by a terrifying and almost completely unrecognizable Jason Isaacs – wants it back.
The film seems to exist solely to facilitate Rockwell’s excellent work, surrounding him with a stellar supporting cast who must have been attracted by the chance of working with him since it’s hard to believe the script sold anyone on the idea. Rockwell plays John as a deeply internalized man. He isn’t a man of few words, but he’s lost the capacity to maintain small talk or bullshit with people unless he’s out drinking with them. Even in the wordless opening before the inciting incident happens, John doesn’t really seem to give a shit about anything other than himself. Later when his own life is threatened, his counteractions are delivered in a very matter of fact fashion. He’s a hard man made harder by circumstance and a broken heart, drifting aimlessly even when a large sum of cash has fallen into his lap. The cash is a seen as a beacon of light pointing at one singular, unattainable goal. It’s a departure from the kind of wacky, over the top comedic characters Rockwell normally plays, but a reminder to audiences that he’s far more than just a villain, or a sage giver of advice, or the requisite best friend. It’s easy to see why he would agree to the part, as director David M. Rosenthal and writer Matthew F. Jones (adapting his own novel) give him plenty of leeway to create a character on his own rather than provide him with something already spelled out in advance.
Ditto the supporting cast, which is great, but an almost embarrassment of misplaced riches. In addition to the aforementioned Isaacs, Joe Anderson is equally unnerving as the villain’s porn loving right hand man who can get closer to John than our antihero would like via his child. Jeffrey Wright has two great scenes as John’s moonshine loving drinking buddy, and William H. Macy plays the only lawyer in town and the man John looks to in help with his divorce proceedings. Reilly is fine, but much like the rest of the support, she only really gets one or two scenes to make an impression before she’s largely forgotten about. In a film that hinges on the relationship between John and his wife, that’s a considerable problem.
But what ultimately makes A Single Shot a bit of a slog is that it might be a full hour too long, with barely enough material for 70 minutes, let alone 118. It’s a film where the villains needlessly waste time with overly cinematic threats when they could just as easily shoot John in the head and take the money back. There’s no real set up for them to be the types who would bother to release farm animals into John’s house or call him up in hushed tones. They clearly know where he lives, but for a full hour of the film Rosenthal and Jones keep setting up pointless suspense sequences that dull the impact of everything around it. These are moments that could have been spent more wisely setting up character (which in the case of Wright’s appearance they do, but not well enough) and twists, but there’s very little to be found. It becomes a film where things just happen for the sake of dragging the movie out rather than moving things along. Overall it could be worse. It’s just kind of boring after a while.