‘A Single Shot’ a fine showcase for Sam Rockwell, but not much else

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a single shot posterA Single Shot

Written by Matthew F. Jones

Directed by David M. Rosenthal

USA, 2013

Sam Rockwell’s secret weapon is not his gift of gab, but his ability to use that chatty nature to disarm everyone around him. Rockwell, so rakish and charming in this summer’s indie hit The Way, Way Back, isn’t the kind of actor who can’t play taciturn, but deliberately robbing him of his quirky, squirrelly speech patterns is always a bit of a letdown. As such, so too is A Single Shot, a grim, drab crime drama with Rockwell playing strong and silent at the center, leaning too heavily on the latter quality.

Rockwell is John Moon (a nice, if unintentional, nod to one of his best films, the 2009 sci-fi drama Moon), an estranged husband and father living in the hills of West Virginia in a nondescript little shack. One morning, while on the hunt for some deer, he accidentally shoots and kills a teenage girl who has, among her belongings, a fair bit of cash that John takes after hiding her body. Of course, no crime, even an inadvertent one, is that simple; soon enough, various goons come after John and his ill-gotten gains; all the while, he attempts to use that cash to mend fences with his ex-wife (Kelly Reilly) and reunite with his toddler son.

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As evidenced in Moon, Sam Rockwell falls under the category of actors and actresses who do not need a larger ensemble to create compelling cinema. For large portions of A Single Shot, he’s on his own; it takes a good 15 minutes for him to even interact with any other living character, and that’s during a phone call. The issue, then, is less that Rockwell’s not fascinating working solo; it’s more that the material is too self-serious and intentionally colorless. The film, written by Matthew F. Jones (who wrote the novel of the same name), appears to take place in the once-picturesque, now-rundown parts of the Rust Belt that also took center stage in Winter’s Bone. That, at least, had the advantage of a more lively, menacing, and colorful group of characters. Most of the players in this saga are either lacking in vibrancy or trying too hard. For the latter, take Daggard Pitt, a lawyer John seeks out presumably to avoid having to sign divorce papers. Pitt, played by William H. Macy, is quite clearly a sleazy operator, his toupee so comically fake that he seems to wear it more to see if anyone would dare call him out on its poor quality. From his over-the-top name to his obviously threadbare clothes, Daggard cuts a figure that’s less comic, and more desperate. Macy’s the closest to comic relief in this often literally dark fare, but his whole presence is too forced to work.

A Single Shot is, if nothing else, well-cast, even though a few too many of the performers are caught working very hard at selling a Southern accent despite being from across the pond. There’s Jason Isaacs, Joe Anderson, Ophelia Lovibond, and more, all of whom look the part, mostly. Even Jeffrey Wright, as an old friend of John’s, seems to be pushing himself, squeezing out just the right twang so his typically low-key rumble of a voice can’t be detected. Even if the regional dialect appears to work against them, the cast for A Single Shot is so talented that the movie is rarely dull. Their presence enlivens the atmosphere, so dingy and unpleasant, with no let-up.

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A Single Shot, as another excuse to give Sam Rockwell work in film, is OK, but could still be much better. Rockwell’s got so much range that he likely could’ve played any of these characters, from the wiry thug watching over his son to the man behind all of the trouble John’s gotten himself into to even John’s iffy attorney. Though he can play the man of a few words, Sam Rockwell is at his best when he talks and talks. A Single Shot serves as a showcase for him to glower behind a bushy, stringy beard, and though he’s more than capable of doing that in his sleep, it’s hard not to wish that Rockwell could find himself a starring role that offers him more than just a scant few words.

— Josh Spiegel

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