If you know Sam Rockwell’s work and career, you know he’s not given the driver’s seat all that often (not often enough if you ask this writer). Although he’s turned in some utterly incredible performances, he hasn’t seen much recognition as a leading man. A SINGLE SHOT may stand to change that, for better or worse we have yet to see.
The plot is not unlike that of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN: a man takes a lot of money from a dead person and then other people come looking for the money. But A SINGLE SHOT is not as tense in the sense that it does not pit a brilliant sociopath against its protagonist. These are all just regular men — no, in most cases, these are sub-regular men — men fallen on hard times, in the grips of alcoholism, abandoned by family and friends, and so with this element of depravity the story is less thrilling but perhaps more terrifying.
As Rockwell’s John Moon witlessly staggers backwards into the snares laid out for him, he finds that even though he has very little, those who are after him will draw in and threaten the few people and things closest to him. As Moon receives increasingly bizarre threats at his trailer home, he grows more despondent, more desperate, until he is forced to take action against his pursuers.
As much of a grippingly tense backwoods thriller as this movie aims to be, ultimately it’s a tour-de-force acting vehicle for Rockwell (and Macy and Wright, to a lesser degree), a severely underutilized actor capable of astonishing feats of assimilation. Probably the hallmark of all great actors is their ability not to be noticed, not to be recognized as anything but a living character — so subsumed with their role that their ego gets completely sucked into that of their character, and they disappear. Unfortunately, as actors nail roles, they usually get more lucrative offers from bigger studios and with increased recognition that disappearing act becomes almost impossible. (Ryan Gosling also enjoyed this kind of versatility for a while, doing great bits in LARS AND THE REAL GIRL and HALF NELSON before turning all brooding heartthrob. Now he’s a selling point; crowds come to see Gosling onscreen; his performance is a distant second.)
If A SINGLE SHOT is any indication, Rockwell’s chameleonic anonymity is not likely to last much longer. His other recent notable lead role was that of Sam Bell in the brilliant MOON, in which he carried practically the entire film, accompanied only by a handful of extras and the voice of Kevin Spacey. And he blew it out of the water. If this man is not a marquee leading man in the next couple years, I’d be appalled. If Sam Rockwell weren’t enough, A SINGLE SHOT also features Jeffrey Wright (CASINO ROYALE) as a fat drunk oaf, and William H. Macy (FARGO) as a gimpy small-town divorce attorney. The cast does a fantastic job with the script, which means the only thing holding this movie back is the script itself.
One of the film’s weaknesses, if I may, is the fact that the things John Moon is called to do to “correct” his dire situation have little effect on his life’s trajectory or his ambitions. From the opening scenes, it’s clear what’s most important to him is that his family come back together, but the cat-and-mouse plot does little to help resolve this desire. Anyone could be pursued by seedy gunmen and still have a destroyed family life. So there seems to be no crucial narrative “purpose” for having Moon go through this ordeal. Rockwell does the best he can, but an actor of his caliber really does need more substantial material.
The bottom line: if you want to see what might be Sam Rockwell’s last true character role of his career, give this one a shot.
Final Score: 7 out of 10