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BERLIN – In the grisly backwoods yarn A Single Shot, William H. Macy makes a couple of brief appearances as a low-rent small-town lawyer. He wears a screamingly obvious toupee, a cheap plaid jacket and garishly mismatched floral tie, plus he has a limp, a gammy arm and a chronic case of the shakes. In many ways, this heavy-handed caricature epitomizes David M. Rosenthal’s misjudged thriller, an inbred child of A Simple Plan and Winter’s Bone that aims for atmospheric literary tragedy but instead delivers overripe pulp with pretensions.
Given that Matthew F. Jones adapted his own novel for the screen, much of the blame for this lurid mess lands on the writer’s shoulders. But director Rosenthal (Janie Jones) – while he loftily cites the inspiration of Terrence Malick, Stanley Kubrick, Akira Kurosawa and other filmmaking luminaries in press notes – is no slouch when it comes to adding crude, derivative layers.
This is especially the case with some of the chewier performances, which seem to be reaching for Coen Brothers-style idiosyncrasy but consistently overshoot or fall short of that mark. As crack-smoking white-trash ex-con Obadiah “The Hen” Cornish, for example, Joe Anderson appears to be worshipping at the shrine of Robert De Niro’s hammy turn in the Cape Fear remake. But he’s far from the only purveyor here of Southern-fried cliche.
Aside from glowering skies over misty forest locations (the Vancouver area stands in for West Virginia), what A Single Shot has going for it chiefly is the lead performance of Sam Rockwell, who lends the material more conviction than it merits. He plays John Moon, who has lost his livelihood and his family since his parents’ dairy farm went into foreclosure and his diner-waitress wife Jess (Kelly Reilly) exited with their baby son.
Living alone in a trailer, John is a skilled rifleman who has been charged multiple times for poaching game on Nature Conservancy land. During one illicit hunt, he shoots at a moving target through the trees and accidentally kills a teenage runaway. While still absorbing the shock he finds the dead girl’s hideout and discovers a case full of money stashed there. Desperately figuring this might be his best chance at winning back his family, he covers the body and takes the loot. But before long, all kinds of skeevy backwater types start closing in, bringing escalating violence.
One of the key problems with Jones’ script is that he’s been unwilling to pare down the novel into clean cinematic lines. There are too many characters and too much plot, which may have worked with the breathing space of prose fiction but seems hopelessly crammed and lacking fluidity on the screen.
For instance, much time is spent on John’s hope of saving his relationship with Jess, but the climactic redemption comes while protecting a neighbor’s daughter (Ophelia Lovibond) who barely exists as a character. (In all honesty, less of the unconvincing Reilly is not necessarily a bad thing.) And by switching midway from Obadiah to an equally one-dimensional antagonist in the sinister Waylon (Jason Isaacs), the villains pretty much cancel each other out with their badass posturing.
Other than Rockwell’s intense John, whose unhinged panic climbs as he gets in deeper and deeper, none of the characters makes much of an impression. And both the director and writer show such patchy story sense that a lot of the buildup to the final bloodshed and malevolence registers as suspense-free clutter. The film’s splashes of seediness and brutality seem more like gratuitous flourishes than any serious attempt to capture the grim Americana shadow-world so rivetingly explored in films like Winter’s Bone.
Shot in murky tones by Eduard Grau and wildly overscored with Atli Orvarsson’s agitatissimo string section, A Single Shot becomes both laborious and clumsy at wrangling all its plot points. This is particularly evident when it falls to Jeffrey Wright, as John’s hooch-swillin,’ fornicatin’ old friend Simon, to explain the origins of the cash in a cumbersome monologue.
“The drunker I get, the more reasonable the most un-fuckin’-reasonable things seem to me,” says Simon at one point. Unfortunately, most audiences won’t have a jug of applejack to help them along.
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Forum)
Production companies: Bron Studios, Unified Pictures, Unanimous Entertainment, in association with Media House Capital, Demarest Films, Visionary Pictures
Cast: Sam Rockwell, Jeffrey Wright, Kelly Reilly, Jason Isaacs, Joe Anderson, Ophelia Lovibond, Ted Levine, William H. Macy, Amy Sloan, Heather Lind, W. Earl Brown, Jenica Bergere
Director: David M. Rosenthal
Screenwriter: Matthew F. Jones, based on his novel
Producers: Chris Coen, Keith Kjarval, Aaron L. Gilbert, Jeff Rice
Executive producers: David M. Rosenthal, Sam Rockwell, Matthew F. Jones, Joseph Wright, Ellen Wright, Raju Hariharan, Patrick Murray, John Raymonds, Sean Thomas, William D. Johnson, Sam Englebardt, Michael Lambert
Director of photography: Eduard Grau
Production designer: David Brisbin
Music: Atli Orvarsson
Costume designer: Beverly Wowchuck
Editor: Dan Robinson
Sales: Inferno Entertainment
No rating, 116 minutes
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