Sam Rockwell in the L.A. Times Photo & Video studio at the 2013 Sundance… (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)
BERLIN -- Contrary to the title, there are many shots in David M. Rosenthal’s film “A Single Shot,” world-premiering Saturday at the Berlin International Film Festival. But the one that sets this story in motion takes place in the first few minutes of the movie.
John Moon (Sam Rockwell) intently hunts a deer through a damp forest, but ends up hitting the wrong target, in cold mud. His shotgun blast catches Ingrid (Christie Burke), who, like John, is in the wrong place. She’s hiding out in the nature conservancy where he has been poaching deer and pheasant. When he hides her body, he finds a box of cash that comes with some savage strings attached.
John’s dangerous downward spiral is a big part of what drew Rosenthal to the story. "It's the descent. It's very kind of Greek. And it's got a gothic quality too,” explained Rosenthal, whose previous works include comedy (2004’s “See This Movie”) and nuanced family drama (2011’s “Janie Jones”).
An uncomfortable tenseness cloaks "A Single Shot," which might best be of the genre Foreclosure Noir. A bit of a cipher, John is a failed farmer of few words and even less money in a limping West Virginia town. His family’s property was lost due to mismanagement, and he now can’t hold down a job that forces him to work indoors. Everyone in this small community seems to know everyone else’s business – sometimes to fatal effect.
Keeping his secret, and the box of cash, makes John paranoid, and the target of small-town sadist Obadiah Cornish, a gangly tough known as “The Hen” (played by Joe Anderson), and his cellmate Waylon (Jason Isaacs), whose young girlfriend was hiding the loot when she got in the way of John’s gun.
Alongside is Simon (Jeffery Wright), a bumbling good-time boy with a bad side who might not be the brother-in-arms he seems; William H. Macy as a lawyer who knows more than his innocent demeanor belies; and Kelly Reilly as John’s estranged wife, who doesn’t share his bucolic farming dream.
There are more dueling moral codes on screen than bullets in the 116-minute film, which is based on the 1996 novel of the same name by Matthew F. Jones. First optioned in 1997, “A Single Shot” predates the somewhat-similar-in-theme “No Country for Old Men,” and over the years was associated with multiple producers, directors and actors.
The film is screening in the Berlinale’s Forum section, a kaleidoscope of avant-garde, experimental, and documentary that often holds some of the most challenging parts of the festival. “A Single Shot” seems apt to appeal to audiences here, despite the setting in gun-toting rural America.
People have said "this feels like a European film,” said Rosenthal. “It's got cinematography that feels very naturalistic. It's no mistake. I am very passionate about European cinema. So I gravitate to the shapes of that kind of storytelling."
At time of writing, distribution arrangements were “in play,” with a possible deal expected after Saturday evening’s premier.
Rosenthal now has a bio-pic in his sights. While shooting with Rockwell, the two bonded over a love of boxing, and came upon the story of 1920’s folk-hero boxer Billy Miske. Michael Costigan (“Prometheus”) will produce.
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