A Single Shot, which stars Sam Rockwell as a grizzled mountain man and a bunch of other talented Hollywood actors as backwoods reprobates, is one of those wearisome indie exercises in “authenticity.” Ostensibly a moral thriller in the vein of A Simple Plan—and all too clearly influenced by Winter’s Bone—it’s largely just an opportunity for the actors to try on Ozark-y mannerisms, swig moonshine, and hock loogies. And like most exercises in authenticity, it couldn’t be more inauthentic if it tried.
Shot in British Columbia but set in some indeterminate rural America that exists solely in the minds of screenwriters, the movie opens with a bearded, mumbling Rockwell out hunting deer. Thinking he has one in his sights, he fires through a thicket, only to discover he’s killed a young woman. The movie is only five minutes in, but already it’s disappointing. Director David Rosenthal (Janie Jones) doesn’t seem to have given any thought as to how to shoot this sequence: The camera just follows along handheld-style, neither emphasizing nor deemphasizing anything, content merely to catch the raw brilliance of Rockwell’s agonized response. Generally speaking, directors who behave as if their job is merely to record the performances are doing the performers a massive disservice—instead of supporting them, they’re exposing them, revealing every last shred of effort and calculation. Not once in A Single Shot is there the illusion of character. There’s just actors acting away.
After Rockwell cycles through the expected emotions, he investigates the girl’s makeshift campsite, only to discover she’d been carrying a briefcase full of cash. Naturally, he hides the body and takes the money. Soon after, he begins receiving threatening phone messages and little handwritten notes of an I Know What You Did Last Summer variety. That’s about it for a story—the scenario is mostly just pretext for establishing the cast of redneck lowlifes, any one of whom could be the blackmailer. It’s hard to say which of the performers is least suited to their role. Could it be fine-boned British actress Kelly Reilly (Flight) as Rockwell’s drawling waitress ex-wife? Or maybe British actors Jason Isaacs and Joe Anderson as monosyllabic cracker thugs? Ultimately, top honors probably go to Jeffrey Wright (so great in projects like Angels In America and Cadillac Records) as Rockwell’s perpetually drunk best friend. Wright has only a few scenes, but each one is a marvel of overacting. His big moment, a mid-film confession of various misdeeds, is like a fireworks display of off-kilter vocal inflections. It could be an homage to the work of Bobcat Goldthwait in the Police Academy series.
As a side note, indie filmmakers like Rosenthal really need to stop using the smoky grey-on-grey palette for every movie set in rural America. Now that even mainstream movies like The Hunger Games have adopted it, it has gone beyond the realm of affectation into full-on cliché.