There are actually three shots fired at the beginning of “A Single Shot.” All three come from the rifle of John Moon (played by Sam Rockwell) and are aimed at a deer in the forlorn, foggy hills of West Virginia (played by Vancouver). But the shot that matters is the one that misses the deer and hits a female camper, killing her and setting in motion a dark chain of events.
Haunting stories like this one, where a tragic mistake leads almost inevitably to larger, more willful errors, are fascinating to watch, even if you have to avert your eyes now and then because of the tension. John, a desperate ne’er-do-well with a thick mountain man beard, compounds his error by hiding the woman’s body and taking the box of cash that he finds among her belongings. Now it’s not a sad accident anymore. Now it’s a crime.
“A Single Shot,” directed by David M. Rosenthal and adapted by Matthew F. Jones from his own novel, isn’t as harrowing or intense as some of the noir-ish thrillers it emulates. But its foreboding atmosphere effectively conveys the chill of living with a terrible secret, and Rockwell’s central performance paints John Moon as a man who’s flawed but not despicable, a tragic figure we can sympathize with as he tries to change his destiny.
He lives in a trailer in a small town where everyone’s poor as dirt or otherwise miserable, surrounded by squalor and hopelessness. His wife, Moira (Kelly Reilly), a diner waitress, has recently left him, taking their toddler son with her. When John stops by the house she’s staying at, he finds a nude woman (Amy Sloan) and a crack-smoking man (Joe Anderson) watching S&M porn while they “babysit.” Later, John is visited at his own home by a friend named Simon (Jeffrey Wright), who brings a couple skanks with him for casual, sleazy debauchery. The fact that these wretched lives are being lived out while surrounded by such natural beauty only adds to the sadness. (It’s hard not to think of “Winter’s Bone,” a similarly grim tale set in the gorgeous but depressed American South.)
John doesn’t want a divorce like Moira does, but he uses some of his ill-gotten cash to hire a nervously folksy lawyer named Pitt (William H. Macy). (Poverty wouldn’t be plausible for an attorney, so Pitt has another affliction that keeps him on the same level as the other characters: he’s partially crippled.) Pitt smilingly observes that there are “overlapping interests in a small town,” which proves to be more sinister than it sounds. The money John found surely was not acquired legally by the dead woman, and any associates she had are 1) bound to come looking for it and 2) probably not afraid of committing additional crimes to get it. And since it’s a small town with overlapping interests, it won’t be too hard for any interested parties to figure out who has it.
You know approximately where this is going — or at least you know that things will get worse for John before they get better — but there are many small, satisfying details that bring the story to life and give it authenticity, reminders of its origins as a novel. John’s father owned a farm that was foreclosed upon a few years back, depriving John of his livelihood and what little pride he had. He has a sweet friendship with a local girl (Ophelia Lovibond) that may hold some promise for the future. The movie feels lived-in, like we’re visiting a community with a long history.
Certain plot elements in the last 20 minutes or so are hard to swallow, especially considering how level-headed the story has been up to that point, and I confess that some characters’ thick rural accents were almost impenetrable to my ears (and I speak hillbilly!). But the film’s pervasive sense of mournfulness and dread makes it a memorable and compelling drama.
B (1 hr., 55 min.; )
Originally published at About.com.