A SINGLE SHOT-- 2 STARS
When it comes to dramatic thrillers, I like a good methodical "potboiler" as much as the next movie fan. I tend to appreciate a film that takes a patient approach to deliver subtle body blows and jabs before hitting you with a few knockout blows in the third act, sealing the enjoyment victory. So many popcorn flicks pack their movies with endless and mindless action sequences because they think we, the audience, can't pay attention if there are not enough surprises and shiny objects. For some moviegoers, that matters. Just look at the success of the Transformers franchise fueled by constant, bludgeoning over-stimulation. For the rest of us, we relish a character-driven potboiler. We admire a movie that takes its time and lingers afterward. For my generation, and in my eyes, the quintessential pot boiler is David Fincher's Se7en. That's how you make a potboiler with a punch.
To pull off a potboiler like Se7en, these movies have to do three things right. First, if you're going to build slowly, you better have good lead characters that matter. The film better have someone interesting for us to spend time with. We don't have to root for them, per say. They just have to be more interesting than the norm. Secondly, your build-up, no matter how deliberately slow, still has to have an absorbing pace. If you're going to ratchet up the tension on purpose, the only direction is up. Breaks are fine, hence the non-Transformers effect, but regression is a killer. Finally, your payoff final act has to deliver on the promise you spent your running time building. I'm not saying you have to have M. Night Shyamalan-level twists or have Keyser Soze reveal himself at the end of every movie, but you have to lock us into our seats with a comeuppance, denouement, or resolution that is striking and compelling enough to marinate into the end credits and car ride home.
Do those three things and you've aced being a potboiler. Blow one, two, or all three of those qualities and you are a yawning waste of time and promise. A Single Shot, the new limited release from up-and-coming filmmaker David M. Rosenthal (Janie Jones, See This Movie), misses about two of those potboiler qualifiers. Adapted by first-time screenwriter Matthew F. Jones from his own 1996 novel, the film stars a game Sam Rockwell, in a role polar opposite to his recent vibrant supporting turn in The Way Way Back. Much like Only God Forgives, I'm starting to see why movies on this scale are getting the limited release and Video On-Demand treatment. If they were any good, we would all see them in the multiplex marquees. For now, A Single Shot is playing exclusively at the AMC River East 21 in downtown Chicago.
Rockwell plays John Moon, a sad and defeated man living in a trailer off the beaten path in the woods of upstate New York (filmed in British Columbia). He clings to a few odds-and-ends jobs while separated from his small-town waitress wife Moira, played by Flight's Kelly Reilly, a Brit who's going the Daryl Hannah route of being way too pretty for this setting and is getting way too good at playing the wounded deer, heart-of-gold type. Hoping for a break and his luck to turn, John is heartset on getting back together with Moira and seeks the intervention of the local gimpy lawyer (William H. Macy) to get a court ruling in his favor.
Speaking of deer, John gets by on his own through poaching local deer in restricted areas and out of season. That's how we meet this man in a wordless 15-minute opening scene to the film. He tracks a wounded doe through the brush but hears two rustles. He fires his shotgun at both. The first was the prize deer, but the second is a now-dead mystery teenage girl. Remorseful and panicked, John collects himself to find her belongings and learns she was running away from some violent local thugs. Among her things is a box containing $100,000 in cash.
John's panic turns into a game change of tempting fate. He's smart enough to know this money isn't intended for a good purpose, likely drugs, but knows it could serve his good of getting back with Moira and their shared son. He decides to hide the body, keep the cash, and cover his tracks. The trouble is someone knows what John did and begins to taunt his safety in return for recovering the money. That opens the gallery of possibilities to be any of the not-what-they-seem people around his community from this movie's impressive character actor cast, ranging from a mysterious new visitor (professional movie villain Jason Isaacs), his rambling friend Simon (the perpetually gray area expert Jeffrey Wright), a local farm employer (Ted Levine, who is never too far from The Silence of the Lambs), and Moira's sketchy new suitor (Joe Anderson of The Crazies and Twilight: Breaking Dawn- Part 2).
A Single Shot only gets one of those three potboiler qualities right. The correct one is having Sam Rockwell play way against his usual type as a compelling lead character. The Sam Rockwell we know is California cool and a motormouth of manic energy and enthusiasm in just about every role he plays from hero or villain to doofus or smoothie. Buried under a beard, a camo ball cap, and a Carthartt wardrobe, he's a meek man of few mumbled words as John Moon. Simpy put, the man acts his ass off to be this broken and frazzled individual caught in more than a few tough spots. You root for his resolve to get his through this plight and for his confidence to return through action. He's the best part of the movie, by far, and I give him a ton of credit for trying something new.
The problem becomes the other two broken parts from the potboiler formula. There's not a ton to like or gravitate towards. No cinematography work catches your eye. The music doesn't match the tension or seize the moment. A Single Shot attempts some key moments to further the suspense, but they are short and not all that captivating. More so, the movie takes far too many breaks for meandering character moments to spotlight the supporting players clicking with Rockwell. Jeffrey Wright is always good and loses himself, and us, as a drunken wanderer who gets a few key scenes. Outside of him, just the presence of a professional movie villain like Jason Isaacs pretty much gives away most of the possible mystery to the trained audience eye. That spoils the third potboiler ingredient of a dynamic ending. Rosenthal's weak ending doesn't do much to give the film a lasting impression. A movie like A Single Shot needs to linger and mean something, but it doesn't. The premise had potential but, somewhere, it got lost in the woods (shameless pun).
LESSON #1: YOU DO WHAT YOU HAVE TO DO FOR BACKWOODS SURVIVAL-- This is a rural movie of shifting lightness and darkness along the same lines as Winter's Bone, a brilliant and better movie that shows how backwoods podunk towns have criminal elements and evil that would rival any Mafia movie in the big city. John tries to keep his nose clean, earn a living, and get his family back together. Sometimes that requires poaching deer and taking a chance on illegal money that comes his way. The fact that a girl got killed is terrible (see next lesson), but a necessary risk.
LESSON #2: THE MEANINGFUL IMPACT OF TAKING A LIFE-- If there is one really solid compliment I can give A Single Shot it's that the plot values and puts stock into the meaningful impact of taking a life. In other thrillers, murder is a plot device for a cheap twist or comes off as quick and unmeaningful. Death in this movie has a more natural and substantial ripple effect. It's as troubling as it is supposed to be.
LESSON #3: THE NON-LAW-RELATED CONSEQUENCES OF TAKING A LIFE-- Stemming from Lesson #2, the movie's drive is to show the consequences for John's accidental killing. However, the consequences we see are not the law-and-order type dealing with his murder as a crime. You won't see a cop all movie and no one is missing that runaway girl other than the criminals chasing her. As a good man at heart, it's the act of taking a life and ensuing coverup that eats at John. Killing for necessity is something John can handle, but murder is not. That guilt fuels his panic and his regret.