In a weird way, a lot of crime drama on film is aspirational: Even as we rest in the knowledge that the criminals will have to pay for what they’ve done, we also know we’re being invited to participate in a voyeurism where we can imagine ourselves rich and wild, at least for the first two acts. There’s a humming thread of desire, of vicarious triumph, running through most crime stories, whether they’re lighthearted (Ocean’s 11) or gruesome (pretty much any Scorsese). Just imagine what you could do with all this money or power, the film seems to say. It’s a tease, and it works, because it lets us fantasize on a subconscious level without abandoning our moral compass. Some crimes stories, though, are just the opposite: they never make those ill-gotten gains look like anything but a burden to be dealt with. Instead of asking “What would you do with all this?” they say “How would you deal with this?” It’s not that either type of film is saying crime pays; it’s that the former lets you flirt with the idea that it might, while the latter never lets you forget that nobody gets out alive.
That’s what A Single Shot is created to do, and the good news is that most of the time its execution rises to meet its ideas, resulting in a grim, taut, absorbing thriller. Directed by David M. Rosenthal from a script by Matthew F. Jones (adapting his novel), the film starts with a standard wrong-guy-wrong-place-wrong-time mishap and gradually but inexorably slides into chaos and paranoia. There isn’t anything really new here, but what makes the film successful in its way is its commitment to a sense of vague dread at every step as it chronicles the doomed misadventures of a poor man living on the edge of society. After a slow start, the film eventually clicks in and gathers speed, moving toward a brutal if rewardingly dark climax.
Sam Rockwell anchors the film as John Moon, a broke hunter and farmer living alone in a trailer on the outskirts of a generic blue-collar town in the northern midwest. At the start of the film, he’s out hunting deer (despite having been busted for poaching multiple times) when he takes a shot at some blurry movement in the woods. When he gets closer, he realizes he’s shot and killed a woman. He deduces murkily that she must be from a nearby camp, and when he takes her corpse there, he discovers a lockbox full of thousands of dollars. This is the first of many crossroads where John takes the worst path available to him: he covers the body in a sheet, absconds with the cash, and acts as if nothing happened.
Rosenthal plays all this relatively straight, too, and he keeps the film interesting in the aftermath of John’s theft precisely by what he doesn’t show: we don’t meet the money’s owner right away, or get some kind of flashback to what drove John to near destitution, or wade through cross-cutting between John and the criminals he’s clearly now crossed. Not that those things couldn’t work, either. Rather, Rosenthal opts to let things unfold naturally, even slowly, as several other plots play out and eventually tie together in John’s fate. There’s John’s impending divorce, requested by a wife who’s taken John’s son and has been living in her own place for a while now. There’s the John’s old friend, Simon (Jeffrey Wright), a perpetual drunk who often reappears in John’s life at inopportune times. There’s the strange new man John sees around town, sticking out sorely in a small village. And there are quickly whispered references to a grisly pair of murders that rocked the town just a few years earlier.
It would be easy to let any of these stories get away, but Rosenthal and Jones have done a wonderful job at finding ways to tie them together. The film’s slow going at first, and Rosenthal meanders from the path a bit thanks to repeated visual attempts to drive home the oncoming storm (shots of fog rolling in, blood seeping into river waters, etc.). But about halfway through, as if willed into being, the film takes on a life of its own, turning from a story about a world into a story set firmly in one. The ugly, often damning connections between the characters, and the way those dual murders come back into play, are haunting in large part because of how sparingly and starkly they’re treated. Major revelations are delivered in the same boozy regional phrases the characters use to talk about crop rotations. In other words, the film achieves a real sense of menace thanks to its restrained way of portraying its characters as actual people. This is incredibly hard to do, and it pays off here.
If there’s an overriding idea in the film, it’s that the biggest dangers are usually the ones right outside our field of vision. John, even though he’s made off with a boatload of cash, still lives his life like normal, as if ignoring the idea of a threat could make it go away. One night, Simon comes to visit with a pair of women in tow, and they all drink and screw and fight into the morning, with John only peripherally aware of a sense of being watched. It’s nothing huge; just a weird feeling Rosenthal conveys with lighting and sound. Things are just the slightest bit off-kilter, but John’s never honest enough with himself to admit he’s in trouble until it’s too late.
It’s easy to see the film’s literary roots: Rosenthal’s deft at moving the focus back and forth between the big motivating action (what will happen to the money?) and the character-driven quests (will John and his wife recover?). The film has enough rich character study in it to not feel cheap, but it also never loses sight of the fact that this is a crime story, and somebody has to pay. And, as I said up top, this is not one of those crime stories that lets its characters or viewers off the hook. The final act is often breathless and horrifying, as John comes to reckon with the sinister forces he cannot control behind the money he never should have touched, and if I sound like I’m being coy it’s only because I’m reluctant to tug on one string and unravel the entire picture. A Single Shot often does what so many films try and fail to do: you know exactly what will happen, but you’re still surprised when it does.
‘A Single Shot’ is currently available on demand.