The main narrative surrounding the evolution of David M. Rosenthal’s “A Single Shot,” which premieres at the Berlin Film Festival today, has been about the longer-than-usual casting merry-go-round — since 2009 a roster of talent as long as your arm has signed up then signed out of the film. However the fear that, as the accepted wisdom goes, there must be something fundamentally wrong with a project that takes this long to put together was somewhat mitigated by the kind of names who kept on stepping up: as worrying as it might be to lose the likes of (pre-breakout) Michael Fassbender, Alessandro Nivola, Forest Whitaker or Juliette Lewis, it doesn’t sting so hard when you get Sam Rockwell, William H. Macy, Jeffrey Wright and Jason Isaacs to show up instead — all actors we admire. Except in this case, accepted wisdom should again be accepted: “A Single Shot” does not add up to anywhere near the sum of its parts, and as individually impressive as any of those parts might be (Rockwell), we are left with a film that if not quite a Frankenstein’s monster, is certainly patchworky.
The issues start at script- and plot-level despite, or possibly because of the author of the bestselling and seemingly much-loved novel, Matthew F. Jones himself being the screenwriter. What possibly works well as literature, in which smaller characters can be colored in and the psychologies of our principals more thoroughly evoked, is here unconvincingly condensed, and so, many of our characters’ decisions come off as bafflingly illogical. It’s perhaps as a result of having someone so familiar with the source material adapting it — it feels like he’s forgotten that we don’t know anything about these people except what we see after fade in. This becomes more egregious as the film progresses toward an ending that, with careful treatment and stylish prose writing, we’re prepared to believe could maybe work as a kind of Gothic take on Greek tragedy. But again, without the benefit of a rich understanding of character, in the film this resolution can only come after a series of contrivances: a whole slew of otherwise unprompted things have to happen solely to bring about the supposed poetic irony of the finale.
John Moon (who evokes in his name a much, much better Sam Rockwell vehicle) is an outdoorsman from a West Virginia farming family whose wife has left him, taking their young son with her, citing his inability to keep a steady “proper” (i.e. indoor) job. One early morning he goes hunting — poaching — and accidentally shoots and kills a young girl, who he then discovers to have a strong box full of money in her possession. Not without moral qualm, he does his best to cover up his misdeed, then takes the money. He is, we feel, a good man, but one with perhaps too many strikes against him for him to be able to do the wholly right thing here, and as for the money, it won’t do her any good, right? Up to this early point the film has been simple and strong, a lot due to it being solely focussed on the ever-watchable Rockwell, whose performance here is impressive in its physicality: he looks and feels the part of the practised hunter, whether tracking an animal through the cold morning woods, or hacking the hindquarters off a deer carcass. The photography in the low, grey lighting sets the bleak mood well, and we seem on course for something small and existential, a morality play nestled in the chilly embrace of a “Winter’s Bone” landscape. Unfortunately, then the plot starts.
The girl had a boyfriend (an oddly-cast Jason Isaacs, perhaps simply nearest the chair when the music stopped?); the boyfriend was in prison with a local thug (Joe Anderson); the thug occasionally bones a waitress (Amy Sloan) who works at the same diner as Moon’s wife Jess (Kelly Reilly, again a strange casting choice). Moon’s best pal (Jeffrey Wright) blows back to town in a cloud of alcohol and telegraphed dubious intentions, and recommends oleaginous local lawyer (William H. Macy) to Moon to handle his pending divorce. Everyone turns out not to be what they seemed, though to be honest we weren’t too clear what they seemed to be in the first place. Perhaps the shortest straw is drawn by the usually terrific Macy who here doesn’t have a character so much as a list of tics and quirks: bad toupee, fake ingratiating smile, loud check jacket, withered hand. Then late in the game another couple of characters are introduced — the goodhearted farmer who bought Moon’s father’s farm and now offers him a job on it, and the spunky farmer’s daughter (Ophelia Lovibond) — just around the same time that an old mystery that had been referrred to a couple of times is suddenly found to be key to the question we weren’t aware we should be asking: where did the money come from?
There are a hundred strands here, any number of which could have been snipped out to give the others room to breathe (again, Macy’s lawyer character, for example, is completely unnecessary). And with more time for the characters to grow and fill out, perhaps we wouldn’t have needed quite such an intrusive “here’s what you should be feeling right now” score? (Note: when one character is hacking off pieces of another while shoving a gun into his mouth, we really don’t need hysterical, squawking strings to tell us that the situation is a perilous one). We are given to understand that Rosenthal was excited at the film’s potential to meld art and genre, but the resultant film has too little truth to its characters, and too little to say about the world to be art; and too little narrative coherence to be satisfying genre fare either. “A Single Shot” features some interesting, atmospheric scene-setting and another standout performance from Sam Rockwell — for us, sadly, those were the only parts of the patchwork we could cherish. [C+]
We should also point out that, contrary to earlier reports from us and others, Melissa Leo is not in this film. Though there is a mistitled photograph from it on her IMDb page.