Even before John Moon, the lonely woodsman played by Sam Rockwell at the center of David M. Rosenthal's "A Single Shot," accidentally shoots a young woman while hunting the desolate area near his trailer, his world has fallen apart. Rosenthal's adaptation of Matthew F. Jones' 1996 novel features a familiar arrangement of criminal events and showdowns, but the movie compensates for much of its familiar shortcomings with an effectively ominous atmosphere. The opening minutes, in which the grave-faced, bearded John roams the countryside in search of prey, establish a sense of isolation that dominates the movie and nearly rescues it from the formula that eventually takes shape.
Following that inadvertent death, John scrambles to hide the body before discovering a pile of money in the late woman's tent. In a desperate bid to win back his estranged wife (Kelly Reilly) and their young child, John stashes the money, only to find himself on the receiving end of intimidating phone calls and threats of violence from an unseen stalker inexplicable aware of John's crimes. While something of a detective story as John scrambles to figure out the identity of his assailant, "A Single Shot" frequently wanders away from the stakes of the situation to explore the despair-riddled purgatory that defines John's existence.
Rosenthal -- whose last movie, the competent drama "Janie Jones," involved another deadbeat dad trying to make right with his family -- has experience sustaining overdone material with mood. In "A Single Shot," he struggles to make the precise circumstances as involving as the world surrounding them and ultimately comes up short, but it's nonetheless a strong showcase for the talent involved. Rockwell has indulged in lively, eccentric roles of late, but "A Single Shot" brings him back to "Snow Angels" territory with a downbeat turn that shows his subtler instincts. As his alcoholic buddy Simon, Jeffrey Wright also takes a step beyond his familiar turf, delivering a performance defined by rambling outbursts and unseemly physicality.
Jones' screenplay elegantly explores these characters' despondent state to the point where "A Single Shot" only really suffers from a conflict between the haunting aura of each scene and various attempts to pick up the pace. The suspense comes and goes, but "A Single Shot" always maintains a firm grip on its sad, deteriorating environment. A classy backcountry noir in the tradition of "Winter's Bone" and "A Simple Plan," the movie never clearly defines its main villains; everyone's pretty suspicious. A jarringly quirky William H. Macy surfaces as the town's suspiciously knowledgable lawyer, while John's pretty sure newly released prisoner and local troublemaker Obadiah (Joe Anderson) has something to do with the conspiracy to win back the cash.
But "A Single Shot" shows less interest in these men than the vanity drowning all of them. There's no apparent escape from their troubles aside from death. Cinematographer Eduard Grau's collection of dark greens and browns deepen connectivity of this incessantly depressing world, where hardly anybody cracks a sincere smile save for the woman John randomly sleeps with to pass his time.
Viewed exclusively on these terms, "A Single Shot" holds plenty of interest, though the plot never manages to reach the gripping heights of the chilly air surrounding it. The mopey soundtrack, replete with shrieking violins at nearly every intense twist, sounds like a desperate bid to push the despair into poetic territory. It only gets about halfway there. Throughout the increasingly dire proceedings, Rosenthal creates a sense of buildup that's eventually a tease. But while "A Single Shot" fires more than a few blanks, it still manages to make them resonate.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Despite a mixed critical reaction, "A Single Shot" could find a home with a midsize distributor willing to play up the notable cast and intriguing genre elements, while solid reactions from the festival circuit will sustain limited word of mouth.