John Moon (Sam Rockwell) is man stuck in the past. The mismanagement and untimely death of his father cost him the family farm while his inability to hold down a steady job has convinced his wife to move out and take their son with her. A Single Shot opens with Moon doing one of the few things he can still succeed at; illegal poaching in the wilderness around his home. When one mistimed shot causes Moon to kill a young woman with no ties to the area, Moon is faced with a choice. Admit his crime and face jail time for illegal poaching and involuntary manslaughter, or hide the crime. The situation is further complicated by Moon’s discovery of a large briefcase of money near the body. Moon chooses to take the money and all that entails – but he soon finds that he is not the only person in town that knows of its existence and is handy with a gun.
I was more than a little skeptical in the opening moments of A Single Shot. Many thrillers begin with an accidental death and let the story unfold from there; many of them also require their characters to make terrible decisions in order to sustain the momentum of the story. When John Moon first hides the body of the young woman he shot, I found myself wondering why thrillers can never begin with a series of fundamentally good decisions that still spiral out of control. Why couldn’t John Moon report the accidental death to the police and deal with the consequences? In the case of A Single Shot, Moon’s decision is also made prior to any real character development and without any context. The entire movie hinges on a moment in the first ten minutes that must be taken on faith alone.
And yet, despite this bad first impression, I found myself slowly warming to the story the film was trying to tell. Once events had been set in motion, the screenplay by Matthew F. Jones – who serves as both author of the source material and screenwriter – allows ample time for character development without sacrificing any of the tension. Jones gives the audience exactly as much information as we need in order to understand the motivations of each character. Take the character of Simon, John Moon’s closest friend, played here by Jeffrey Wright. Wright appears in only two scenes in the entire film – and yet, by the end of his second appearance, the audience knows all that we need to know about the dynamic between the two friends. Wright’s slurring, heartfelt performance as Simon provides us with the movie’s defining moment, showing us not only the reason why John Moon is being persecuted, but also the intelligence and compassion that lurks underneath Moon’s grizzled exterior. The movie runs together a string of scenes in the final act that are near flawless in their balance – neither too explicit nor too vague, each word of dialogue and expression just as it should be.
Over the course of the film, the unnamed town that serves as the setting also takes on a life of its own. Very few scenes in the film are set to anything but fog and rain, and this provides a gloomy tone which seems to soak into each frame of the movie. This visual language is also matched by the reserve of the dialogue; there is a different between not saying anything and leaving things unsaid, and A Single Shot knows the dynamic of a small town and leaves the right amount of dialogue unspoken. Every character that John Moon comes across has had dealings with his late parents, and each character seems to think they know something about his business. Like fog or rain, the secrets of a small town can saturate every aspect of a person’s life and make it difficult to ever get clean. Even Moon’s attorney Pitt (William H. Macy), a man who accepts Moon’s money with the promise of looking after his interests, cannot fully separate himself from the history of his other clients and delivers vague half-threats to Moon even while he tries to help him untangle himself from the violence he is caught in.
A Single Shot may be a slow burn, but one that expertly draws on the best aspects of country suspense films like Debra Granik’s Winter Bone and Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan to give us a thriller that is methodically paced and consistent in tone from start to finish. Each of these films provide their own mixture of violence and secrecy in small rural towns; they also share a reverence for the source material by involving the author of the original author in the screenwriting process. Perhaps by allowing the author to make the necessary edits to adapt the book to film, A Single Shot and its inspirations are able to avoid the pitfalls of having to choose between tone and plot. Regardless, the country thriller is a personal favorite genre of mine, and A Single Shot stands near the top of the list. Given the talent involved and the quality of the film, do not be surprised if this movie is a major player come award season.