Review: A Single Shot (2013)

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Cast: Sam Rockwell, Jeffrey Wright, Kelly Reilly
Director: David M. Rosenthal
Country: UK | USA | Canada
Genre: Crime | Drama | Thriller
Official Trailer: Here


Editor’s Note: A Single Shot opens in limited release tomorrow, September 20th, and is now available in VOD

It’s mostly for the terrific tension it breeds that, when A Single Shot’s first words of dialogue are spoken almost fifteen minutes into the film, it comes as a surprising reminder of the silence that’s come before. The ominous introduction—boasting from the outset the dark, noir-indebted cinematography of Eduard Grau, who coincidentally shot A Single Man—is so eerily involving that it’s almost striking to suddenly hear the sounds of human speech, and thereby to realise their erstwhile absence. Perhaps it’s preposterous to here invoke There Will Be Blood, given the heights of quality suggested by even the merest mention of that name, but it’s not for no reason: the films share not just a similar silent opening sequence, but also a very particular take on very pressing American issues.

Sam Rockwell cloaks himself in this performance every bit as much as he does his face in a beard: it’s a starring role yet not a star role, in a sense, an unassuming portrait that draws on his presence while rejecting his persona, and allows him—a famous, familiar actor—to become an everyman.

a_single_shot_2013_3Inevitably, perhaps, A Single Shot succeeds less in maintaining the impact of its opening moments across the length of its running time than Anderson’s film, but that’s not—of course—to say it’s a failure to capitalise on the promise of that powerful intro. It concludes with John Moon, the quiet poacher whose early morning outing constitutes these first moments, discovering that a careless shot in the direction of a sudden noise has fatally struck a young girl whose nearby, makeshift camp hides a tidy sum of money. The movie’s title, if not entirely true, is at least idealistically apt: here is a movie predicated on a single action and the repercussions, both dramatic and psychological, it brings to bear on the man responsible.

How crucial, then, that he be convincingly portrayed. Sam Rockwell cloaks himself in this performance every bit as much as he does his face in a beard: it’s a starring role yet not a star role, in a sense, an unassuming portrait that draws on his presence while rejecting his persona, and allows him—a famous, familiar actor—to become an everyman. That’s the crux of his work here, convincingly sinking into this scenario as any of us would and reflecting the panicked, paranoid reactions of the character he is: an average, modern-day American struggling to maintain his family amidst monetary ruin and the moral complexities caused by earning any way he can. That’s the essence of Matthew F. Jones’ script, adapted from his own novel, using this ostensibly simplistic narrative setup as a conduit to the big questions of domestic desperation.

The movie’s pervasive aura of unease is less typical thriller tension than it is the lingering sense of social insecurity, provided more by the overall air of crumbling community than by any particular plot devices.

a_single_shot_2013_4Yet while it’s a film whose existential drama is inarguably centred on this sole character, its particular placement in a very specific subset of Americana speaks to a broader social context. Evoking the disenfranchised spirit of this particular part of American life with a community not dissimilar to that of Winter’s Bone, A Single Shot finds in its small town setting a certain primality, as though these folk pushed up against the bare boundaries of nature by economic circumstance are in danger of being back at its mercy. The movie’s pervasive aura of unease is less typical thriller tension than it is the lingering sense of social insecurity, provided more by the overall air of crumbling community than by any particular plot devices.

Which isn’t to say that there aren’t any; indeed, particularly in its closing act, A Single Shot succumbs to some degree to generic demands, losing sight of the wood for all the trees to which it must attend. The necessity to wrap up the story usurps the underlying urgency of character drama, and things conclude far less enigmatically alluring than they started. Still, director David M. Rosenthal’s atmospherics ensure it remains an engaging effort, its fatalistic tone intact even as it tends toward tying up loose ends perhaps more meticulously than might have benefited it. For all the disappointing neatness with which it concludes, A Single Shot remains a moody, morally-ambiguous consideration of the messiness of life.

[notification type=”star”]78/100 ~ GOOD. For all the disappointing neatness with which it concludes, A Single Shot remains a moody, morally-ambiguous consideration of the messiness of life.[/notification]

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.