I first noticed Sam Rockwell when his high-pitched screams made my parents laugh out loud during the hilarious and underrated Star Trek-spoof Galaxy Quest. As Guy Gleegman, the disposable archetype destined to die because the narrative called for it, Rockwell gave the character a genuine sadness that complemented his perfect comic timing.
At that point, Rockwell's career was just starting to cross over from the independent scene to Hollywood fare. In the 15 years since, the actor has carved out an impressive block of on-screen personas, from psychopaths to Lebowksi-like mentors, tormented loners to charming con men. Connecting them all is a resistance to easy categorization.
Despite his diverse filmography, Rockwell treads some fairly new ground with his stoic, deeply conflicted turn as hunter John Moon in David Rosenthal's new mountain noir, A Single Shot. Set in a foggy, rain-swept area of West Virginia characterized by massive ridges and abandoned quarries, the film evokes the extreme locales one might find in an Anthony Mann western.
From its 13-minute opening sequence, which charts Moon's pursuit of a deer through the woods sans dialogue, A Single Shot establishes a very distinct and menacing tone.
"It's a mood piece," Rockwell tells CityBeat over the phone while traversing the streets of New York City. "It's like an Edgar Allen Poe story." The sense of impending fate is certainly palpable from the minute Moon accidentally shoots a woman in the woods and decides to cover his tracks by hiding the body and stealing her bag full of cash.
One of the reasons A Single Shot resonates so strongly is its ability to authentically capture the personality of the region. When asked about his own preparation to play Moon, a skilled marksman and lifelong inhabitant of the mountain terrain, Rockwell says, "I had a guy tape my lines and play them back so I could get the dialect just right. I learned how to carry the gun, how to hold it the correct way."
As Moon gets more entrenched in a criminal underworld that resides close to his own impoverished and economically desperate lifestyle, Rosenthal pits Rockwell against an array of great character actors in striking bit parts. There's William H. Macy as a deceptively seedy small-town lawyer, Ted Levine as a pragmatic farmer, Jeffrey Wright as Moon's alcoholic cohort and Jason Isaacs (nearly unrecognizable) as a hillbilly gun hand. Each brings a different kind of dynamism that punctuates Moon's non-verbal desperation.
Indebted to films like A Simple Plan and No Country for Old Men in its fatalistic sense of comeuppance, A Single Shot differentiates itself through a fascinating social critique regarding the abandonment of rural America by its own people. Dilapidated farms, rusting tractors and muddy pools of coal and ash dominate the frame, giving the film a post-apocalyptic quality.
"Cinematically, it's very dark and brooding," Rockwell says. "It's shot on 35mm, and it does capture a spooky and lonely quality to [Moon's] dilemma."
Moon has a backstory that connects with this theme, having lost his farm due to his father's mishandling of the business. So, it's not surprising when the camera lingers on his bearded face before racking focus to the rotting infrastructure in the background, leaving the foreground completely blurred.
An old-fashioned film noir at heart, A Single Shot foretells death in every frame. Yet the film's final sequence is surprisingly allegorical—and entirely disturbing. With the weight of the world figuratively and literally on his chest, Moon, exhausted and alone, is left to consider the ramifications of his actions.
"I want the audience to be moved and entertained," Rockwell says. "We're challenging them with this ending. We're asking a lot of the viewer because it is very dark."
But this is exactly the type of film Rockwell excels in, a narrative on the fringes, one that defies our expectations.