A Single Shot

by deerinthexenonarclights

I took a somewhat strange path towards seeing this picture: when pre-production first began rumors began to circulate online around the all-star cast that was being assembled for the adaptation of an heretofore unknown crime novel that had some similarities to the stories of Cormac McCarthy and the Coen brothers that I have loved so strongly in the past. A man who lives alone in the mountains mistakes a young girl for a deer during a hunt, steals a stash of money from the site of the shooting and in doing so sets off a series of violent events as telling as they are tragic. It was summertime and I felt like a suspenseful, pulpy thriller so i picked up the book in preparation for a film that I felt sure I would like; it was disconcertingly different to what I had imagined from that synopsis, though far stronger for it.

The novel, by Matthew F. Jones (who adapted the screenplay used here himself), ticked all the boxes that one expects from accidental criminal stories such as these but intermittently it would work in other ways, effecting a much less conventional guise. There was something strange and ethereal about the way in which Jones tells the tale, his book is as much gothic horror as it is Noir. So the story stayed with me, haunted me you might say, ever since, as did my anticipation for the film which shed its cast and shifted its expected release date many times. I had become accustomed to this being one of those films that I would always be waiting around for and then, like a shot out of nowhere, it was released on VOD. So here we are.

The reason that i ranted so much about reading the book is that here director David Rosenthal tells a version of Jones’ tale that is extremely faithful in both tone and content to the original, though this is both a boon and a flaw to the resulting film. For someone like myself who has a strange attachment to the story it was great to see that he, along with Jones, shed none of the surface story beats or the strikingly strange moments that made the book more than those plot parts; all of the scenes that were burned into my memory – the first shots, the sordid motel showdown, the late night campfire, the chicken-filled confessional and the final showdown – are captured compellingly and the moments of quiet between them kept, the chill of the empty mountain air remains to temper those more traditional criminal interactions. A vital inclusion but not one that every director would have made.

I’m not sure, however, that a newcomer will be easily able to put these scenes in their correct context, nor that the nature of the crime and the main character will be clear enough to them. Prose has the luxury of putting us in the protagonist’s perspective almost by default, but film really has to stress to craft that connection and I’m not sure that A Single Shot nails this initially. Rosenthal doesn’t take the easy way out by giving the character voice over narration, nor is there any kind of establishing exposition in the early dialogue; he leaves it up to Sam Rockwell’s relatively small but still so expressive performance to suck us into this world and though this approach eventually works it does take some warming up to, which may challenge less patient audiences.

This stepped-back subtly is present also in the way that the film handles its plot; people and places are mentioned in conversations before they’re shown, if they’re ever shown, vital histories are talked around in conversation but never walked through and though the story involves a lot of letters these are rarely read to us, nor does the camera linger on them long enough for us to read them ourselves. A Single Shot is a complete realisation of the story limited by the camera; the whole world has been built up from the book but we’re only allowed to see the snippets that are shown to us. As a result we are kept in the dark a lot during the film, which is somewhat the point – we’re not supposed to be able to distinguish the deer, nor understand entirely where the money came from until it’s far too late to do anything about either, for example – but it’s also how mistakes are made; over the longer course of the novel these absences play as mysteries but here they seem more like missing scenes or leaps of logic.

On the other hand the film looks incredible; this is a world that we haven’t really seen before on the screen but Rosenthal and cinematographer Eduard Grau capture it better than my imagination. Simply seeing the fog feel its way through the wintery forests around John Moon’s cabin sends a chill down your spine in a way that even the best of written description cannot. The cast also bring all of their characters to life: Rockwell returns to his Snow Angels style of serious acting, quashing his immense charisma into a more uncertain but just as captivating character while Macy and Wright stand out in their supporting performances, giving a lot to what are, time-wise, little roles.

So there are some structural issues but then this film, like the book, lives less on its hard logic then it does the emotional experience. Sure, the story is a solid one and the suspense and action it provides intellectually entertaining enough in the moment but what stay with you are the feelings of loneliness and grief that crush the main character; both of which are allowed despite, or perhaps because of, this condensed structure. Whatever flaws that there may have been in the movie were redeemed by its shattering final shot, one which will stay with me at least as long as the book has. i guess that it’s true, it only takes a single shot to change everything.