If crime cinema has taught us anything, it’s that, should you unexpectedly stumble upon a large stash of cash, it’s best to leave it exactly where you found it. John Moon (Sam Rockwell), however, is seemingly unfamiliar with this basic rule, and as such gets himself into the very type of messy, murderous trouble that always comes from giving into imprudent avaricious impulses. A reasonably sturdy, if overly familiar, bit of backwoods neo-noir, David M. Rosenthal’s A Single Shot is set in motion after John—out illegally hunting in the mountains one misty morning—accidentally shoots and kills a woman and, while attempting to hide her body, finds in her possessions a lockbox full of $100 bills. Already a poacher by nature, John takes the money, hoping it will help him win back his estranged wife, Moira (Kelly Reilly), who’s left with their young son. Yet by using a few of the pilfered Benjamins with a shady local lawyer (William H. Macy) he hires to help prevent a divorce from taking place, John unwittingly leaves a trail back to himself which the loot’s real owners—a couple of tattooed thugs with little time for niceties—soon follow.
Written with evocative sparseness by Matthew F. Jones, based on his own novel, A Single Shot is similar to many of its genre predecessors, spinning a tale—which also comes to include John’s old drunken friend, Simon (Jeffrey Wright, acting with one eye perpetually shut by alcohol)—in which John winds up increasingly incapable of extricating himself from the mess his theft has caused. Shots of fog rolling over a mountain range or blood mixing with dirty water help underline the nasty murkiness enveloping John, while much of the action proper is handled in silence or via curt dialogue that eschews anything approaching statements of theme. That sort of understatement is mirrored by Rockwell, who, in a shaggy beard, baseball cap, and layers of shirts and jackets, embodies John with a quiet outward calm that belies the character’s increasing panic and desperation over the quicksand in which he’s slowly sinking. It’s a muted performance that, in small gestures and despondent glances, gets across the horror born from realizing that escape is fast becoming a dream rather than a possibility. Content to faithfully hew to convention, A Single Shot rarely surprises, but its portrait of foolishness and fallibility, and its atmosphere of inevitable doom, remain sturdy and captivating, culminating with a finale in a freshly dug grave where fatalism and poetic justice finally meet.