Despite the title, there are two decisive rifle shots in David M. Rosenthal’s film of Matthew F. Jones’s novel—one at near the start and another at the end. But the mirroring of a destructive bullet with a redemptive one merely points up the schematic quality of this slow-moving, unsurprising piece of noirish backwoods pulp.
“A Single Shot” opens with shaggy John Moon (Sam Rockwell), an inveterate poacher, venturing out into the nature preserve beside which he lives in a dilapidated trailer looking for deer. But when he fires into a rustling in the brush, what he hits—and kills—is a girl (Christie Burke); and when he searches her belongings, he finds a pile of cash. He conceals the corpse and appropriates the money, hoping to use it to win back his estranged wife Jess (Kelly Reilly), who’s left along with their young son and taken a job as a waitress in the town diner.
Of course that plan goes almost immediately awry. John promptly uses some of the dough to hire a sleazy lawyer (William H. Macy, doing a vaudeville turn by affecting a limp to go along with his terrible wardrobe and his hideous toupee) to try to derail Jess’s attempt to secure a divorce—thereby leaving a trail that the girl’s crooked partners can easily follow right back to him. It’s not long before they show up in the form of Obadiah (Joe Anderson), an ex-con who sports tattoos and a mean attitude, and his even more menacing colleague Waylon (Jason Isaacs).
There are a couple of other characters embroiled in the plot, too—notably Simon (Jeffrey Wright), John’s booze-ridden old friend who serves as the source of numbingly protracted plot exposition late in the game, and Abbie (Ophelia Lovibond), a horse-riding girl who lives next door and serves as a damsel-in-distress at a climactic point.
But with the exception of Rockwell, whom Rosenthal gives plenty of opportunity to create a character—even if Moon isn’t a particularly charismatic one, as he stumbles from mistake to mistake—the cast is badly used. That’s particularly true of Wright and Macy, who are saddled with caricatures from the pulp playbook that may be amusing for a few minutes, but having no depth wear out their welcome pretty fast. But Isaacs and Anderson have a similar problem on a smaller scale, while the women are little more than decorative ornaments to what’s basically a male-dominated tale; even John’s dog comes across with greater personality than they do.
“A Single Shot” is itself shot in grimly grey widescreen images by Eduard Grau, who certainly succeeds in making the mountainous locale appear inhospitable and threatening, and it boasts a surpassingly irritating background score by Atli Orvarsson, with strings that drone moodily except for those occasions when they give way to sudden shrieks to foreshadow the onset of violence.
There’s certainly meat on the bones of noir and pulp yet, as pictures as varied as “Blood Simple,” “A Simple Plan,” “After Dark, My Sweet” and “Coup de torchon” abundantly demonstrated. But in Rosenthal’s effort one senses a yearning to join that distinguished company rather than success in managing to do so.