BERLIN – Some films, like “Gloria,” enter Berlin with no profile and leave with their heads held high; others merely shuffle away quietly after a reasonably noisy arrival. David S. Rosenthal’s drab backwoods thriller “A Single Shot,” a rather surprising inclusion for the festival’s more esoteric Forum sidebar, is in the latter group.
One of the few world premieres at the festival to boast a modicum of US star power — well, to those for whom high-end character actors like Sam Rockwell and William H. Macy are stars, at any rate — it’s the kind of indistinct genre potboiler that might have seemed more at home in the lower reaches of the Sundance programme. Not that this overextended pulp is particularly flattered by the festival circuit to begin with: happened upon at the halfway mark on TV, preferably after a few beers, its identikit premise and logical stumbles may seem more comfortingly expected.
What cred the film does have comes courtesy of Rockwell, the kind of actor who’s compellingly peculiar even when he’s phoning it in — and even here, there are sporadic flashes of dedication visible in his eyes, inasmuch as we can see them behind an impressive forest of facial hair. He plays John Moon, a self-sufficient but none-too-bright yokel eking out an existence of irresponsible carousing and illegal game hunting in a rural corner of Nowheresville, USA. I’m not being facetious with the town name: one of the many details given scant thought in Matthew F. Jones’s adaptation of his own novel is any clear indication of where the film is set, though it’s evidently in that possibly mythical band of the South so beloved of Hollywood screenwriters, where bucktoothed horndogs spout dialogue like, “The shape I’m in, about one cousin’s all I can handle tonight.”
Until the mechanics of the mystery narrative take over, “A Single Shot” seems amusingly engaged to conjure the most stereotypically hickish line ever committed to screen, like an “SNL” skit on “Winter’s Bone.” The plot, to its detriment, seems rather less self-aware in its commitment to cliche. While out hunting in the woods, Moon mistakes an unfamiliar young woman for a deer and shoots her dead. Naturally, when he finds her campsite, an irresistible stash of cash is there for the taking, a windfall that facilitates his decision not to alert the cops, and sets any number of unsavory types in hot pursuit.
The stolen-cash manhunt has formed the basis of many a great thriller, but only in the cadence of its title does “A Single Shot” resemble, say, “A Simple Plan”: Jones and Rosenthal seek the most opaque, long-winded way to tell a rather tight story, running out of time sufficiently to necessitate a risible expository monologue for Jeffrey Wright (a great actor here on fragrantly hammy form) as Moon’s perma-drunk pal and potential antagonist.
Also showing up to uniformly limited effect are an unfortunately coiffed Jason Isaacs on chief villain duty, William H. Macy as a crooked lawyer and Kelly Reilly, still getting good wear out of that “Flight” accent, as Moon’s ex-wife. None of them are bringing as much to the table as Rockwell, who lends a kind of dumb dignity to Moon’s ill-considered quest — save for British up-and-comer Ophelia Lovibond, who gives this glum film some late moments of sweet zeal as a wholesome neighboring girl with a curiously persisent soft spot for Moon.
Lovibond reflects a little light in a film that otherwise wallows in murk of both the narrative and visual kind — as one shot after another is swallowed in indecipherable shadow, you’d never guess this was shot by Eduard Grau, the Spanish cinematographer behind “A Single Man.” That film’s narrative, of course, also hinged on a single shot — a wholly irrelevant connection I found myself making only because my attention had wandered sufficiently far from this agreeably mediocre effort.