In “A Single Shot,” director David M. Rosenthal tries to conjure a neo-noir thriller out of muddled dramaturgy, cinematography drained nearly of all color and actors with regional accents so thick subtitles would help.
All of which produces the sensation of characters that have seemingly climbed out of a Coen Bros. movie into one singularly lacking in any of the brothers’ wit or insights.
There’s even the odd sight of William H. Macy, so fondly remembered for his brilliant comic turn in the Coens’ “Fargo,” struggling to play a character with so many fussy ticks and manners as to be almost a parody of a William H. Macy performance.
Using a screenplay by Matthew F. Jones, based on his own novel of the same name, the director fairly drenches a bloody backwoods story with “atmosphere” but winds up with little more than pretentious pulp fiction.
In production notes, Rosenthal cites as his influences making this picture not only the Coens but Kubrick and Kurosawa. No harm in aiming high. But he seriously misjudges his abilities at this point in his career.
Probably the movie he has in mind here is Debra Granik’s remarkably austere rural thriller,”Winter’s Bone.” There you sensed the director’s firm understanding of the social terrain and familial ties among Ozark backland folks and the treacherous hazards awaiting anyone who crossed them.
But Rosenthal regards his West Virginia criminal element from above. Not really knowing them or living among them — Jones, who lives in Virginia, may know them better — he falls back on easy caricatures of white-trash crackheads and backwood poachers.
The landscape, photographed by that fine Spanish cinematographer Eduard Grau (“Arthur Newman”), is a monochromatic portrait of wild desolation. The occasional human figure appears dwarfed by the wilderness, an interloper that nature will find a way to take care of.
Sam Rockwell plays a taciturn hunter, John Moon — a poacher really — down on his luck having lost first the family dairy farm to foreclosure and then his diner-waitress wife Jess (Kelly Reilly), who left with their small son.
One day he takes a shot at a lone deer but instead apparently hits and kills a young woman. Then as he tries to dispose of the body, he finds the dead girl’s hideout and discovers a case full of money.
Naturally, he helps himself — and you know he will pay dearly for this. Indeed such is his indiscretion, he throws some of the money at a hick lawyer named Pitt (this is the Macy character) so that Pitt might stall his wife’s suit for divorce.
For what wants to be a simple tail, there’s far too much plot here along with characters that cancel each other out. It is left to John’s drinking buddy (Jeffrey Wright) to explain in long-winded and drunken fashion the origin of the loot, which matters much less than the filmmakers think.
The bad guys are cut from the same sinister cloth, first a crackhead named Obadiah (Joe Anderson), then an even more hammy white trasher named Waylon (Jason Isaacs). That’s really one too many.
Also for all of John’s mooning over his ex, it is not her the script places in jeopardy but rather a neighbor (Ophelia Lovibond), who until that point has barely figured in the story.
I’m convinced Macy can never be bad in a movie but this is about as close as he gets. His Pitt comes in a ridiculous plaid jacket, mismatched floral tie and cheap toupee, plus he has a limp, useless arm and chronic nervous demeanor.
All ticks and afflictions but no real character here except that Pitt’s obviously corrupt. He does epitomize, however, the way all the characters telegraph their moral vacuousness.
Another mordant note comes from composer Atli Orvarsson whose aggressive string section all but chokes the melodrama in certain passages.
Opens August 20, 2013 (VOD), Sept. 20, 2013 (theatrical) (Tribeca Film)
Production companies: Bron Studios, Unified Pictures, Unanimous Entertainment, in association with Media House Capital, Demarest Films, Visionary Pictures
Cast: Sam Rockwell, Jeffrey Wright, Kelly Reilly, Jason Isaacs, Joe Anderson, Ophelia Lovibond, Ted Levine, William H. Macy, Amy Sloan, Heather Lind, W. Earl Brown, Jenica Bergere
Director: David M. Rosenthal
Screenwriter: Matthew F. Jones, based on his novel
Producers: Chris Coen, Keith Kjarval, Aaron L. Gilbert, Jeff Rice
Executive producers: David M. Rosenthal, Sam Rockwell, Matthew F. Jones, Joseph Wright, Ellen Wright, Raju Hariharan, Patrick Murray, John Raymonds, Sean Thomas, William D. Johnson, Sam Englebardt, Michael Lambert
Director of photography: Eduard Grau
Production designer: David Brisbin
Music: Atli Orvarsson
Costume designer: Beverly Wowchuck
Editor: Dan Robinson
No rating, 116 minutes