A Single Shot
Author: Matthew F. Jones
Writer’s Potential: 9
Logline:When a poacher accidentally kills a teenage girl, he’s inadvertently drawn into the lives of bloodthirsty criminals.
Synopsis:JOHN MOON (30s) lives in a trailer outside a small town nestled in the Catskills. He goes deep into the woods, hunting deer in a forbidden area. He shoots a buck, but it’s not a clean kill, so he tracks it through the woods into the private property of Ira Hollenbach. He hears a noise and shoots before looking. The buck leaps on him. John wrestles it to the ground, then puts him out of his misery with a shot to the head. After examining the area, John realizes the second shot actually hit and killed a teenage girl hiding in the woods. She was in the middle of writing a letter, which John takes and reads. It identifies her as Ingrid, and she writes to unknown people at her foster home, saying she’s running away with her boyfriend Waylon to get married in Mexico. John drags the body to an isolated cave and searches her possession. Inside a pillowcase, she has a metal box, which is overstuffed with cash. John considers whether or not to take the money. He leaves it for the moment, then chops up the deer carcass, drags the useful parts back to his trailer, carves up some deer steaks, showers, and sits in silent contemplation.
John’s phone rings. It’s his best friend, SIMON, who tells John to call a lawyer to help John deal with his wife, who has filed for divorce. Simon recommends his own attorney. John asks Simon if he knew Ira Hollenbach, and whether or not Simon thinks it’s true that Ira had a big stash of money that was stolen before Ira and his wife were murdered six years ago. Simon tells him to forget about it. The next morning, John helps lay a driveway for COLE HOWARD. Halfway through the day, Howard lays John off in order to make room for his son. John leaves, understanding. He goes to see the lawyer, DAGGARD PITT, a creepy man with a bum leg and claw-like hands. John tells Pitt he doesn’t want a divorce. He wants to work things out with his wife, for the benefit of their infant son. Pitt explains that their son is the reason she wants the divorce, and that John’s had too many jobs to seem like a reliable, responsible father. John explains that he was raised a farmer, but when the bank foreclosed on his family’s farm, he didn’t have many options, and he’s not made for doing much else. John’s a little uneasy about how much Pitt seems to know about John — he represented John’s father during the foreclosure proceedings, and he knows all about John’s history of poaching arrests. John tells Pitt to delay the divorce until he can talk to his wife. While talking to Pitt, John sees two men outside. One’s a creepy guy he doesn’t recognize — but the other is WAYLON, whom John recognizes from a photo among Ingrid’s belongings. He gets nervous.
John goes to a diner in town, where his wife, MOIRA, works as a waitress. John announces he’s ready for marriage counseling, an idea she brought up years ago. Moira refuses. John tells her he has some things to drop off for her and the baby — food and money. He tells her he’ll come by after her classes in the evening. She tells him not to, and it turns into an argument, so John gets angry and leaves. John goes to a phone booth and anonymously asks the police if any teenage girls have been reported missing. John goes to his woodshed and gets the deer stakes, and the case full of money, showing he went back for it. He pulls out two stacks of bills and drops them in a bag with the steaks. He goes to Moira’s apartment. She doesn’t answer, so he breaks in. He finds a couple having sex in the tiny living room, with porn on the TV, all right in front of the sleeping baby, NOLAN. The man, OBADIAH, pulls a gun on John. John realizes he’s the man who was with Waylon earlier. The woman is CARLA, a coworker of Moira. She’s supposed to be babysitting. Nolan wakes up and starts screaming. John explains who he is and why he’s here, and Obadiah puts the gun away. John tries to demand that they leave, then tries to quiet the baby. He fails, so Carla takes him back. Dejected, he leaves. On the street, he bumps into Waylon. John’s expression betrays recognition, which makes Waylon suspicious. John leaves the deer steaks and money in Moira’s car, then leaves.
The next morning, John gets a call from CECIL, the farmer who ultimately bought John’s family’s farm. John helps Cecil get a cow out of the mud. Because he’s getting on in years and his son’s not cut out for farming, Cecil offers John a job. John agrees to consider it. Returning to the trailer, John sees a suspicious SUV drive past. Inside, he gets a call from Moira, who thinks John leaving “rotting meat” in her car was a practical joke. She asks about the money, genuinely concerned, but John tells her not to worry about it. They agree Carla will not babysit for Nolan again. While he’s on the phone with Moira, John watches his dog get shot. John rushes outside but sees no sign of the SUV. John cradles the dead dog. That night, John sits with his loaded gun. He gets another phone call. A mystery man tells him if he doesn’t return the money from where he found it by tomorrow morning, the next death won’t be a dog. The phone goes dead. John hears a car approaching,. He panics and hides with his gun, but it turns out to be Simon and two women, COLETTE and MINCY. They go to a nearby pond. Colette wanders off into the wander with Simon. Mincy sidles up to John. He initially rebuffs her sexual advances, but eventually he gives in.
The next morning, John says his goodbyes, then treks out to the cave with the money. He discovers Ingrid’s body is gone. Alarmed, he leaves without dropping the money. That afternoon, wandering through heavy fog, John thinks he sees Ingrid’s ghost riding on a horse. It turns out to be ABBIE, Cecil’s teen daughter. She talks to him about the offer, and makes a suggestion from her economics class: profit-sharing. If Cecil gives John some cows and maybe a patch of his own land, eventually John could start his own small farm. John returns to his trailer and discovers it’s been completely trashed, and whoever did it left Ingrid’s corpse, wrapped in plastic with a note reading “John Moon murdered me!” Before he can do anything, Moira shows up to pick up some clothes. Confused and terrified, John refuses to allow her in the house. Moira’s suspicious, but she allows John to get the clothes and bring them out to her.
That night, John wakes to the sound of breaking glass. He grabs his .45 and goes out into the living room, where he sees tail lights receding through a smashed window. Amid the debris, John finds a rock with a note wrapped around it. The note threatens Moira and Nolan and sarcastically suggests John call the cops. Almost immediately thereafter, Pitt calls. John is instantly distrustful, and with good reason: Pitt makes veiled threats and suggests John pay him a visit about legal matters unrelated to the divorce. John drives out to Moira’s apartment and finds it empty. He talks to Carla at the diner, but she says she hasn’t seen them. John demands to know where Obadiah is. The restaurant manager, PUFFY, butts in, observing that she’s been spending a lot of time at “The Oaks” lately. John drives to “The Oaks,” a rotting fleabag motel. He hides his truck, finds the right room, and listens to make sure it’s empty. John sneaks inside. It’s empty aside from a bathtub filled with trout and the names and numbers of Simon, Pitt, Moira, and John scratched into the margins of a Chinese takeout menu. John hears footsteps and voices and hides in the closet. Waylon and Obadiah enter, arguing about the money. Waylon demands to know who has it and why it’s taking Obadiah so long to get it back. Obadiah says John has it; Waylon doesn’t believe it. He chops chunks of Obadiah’s face off, but the story doesn’t change. Now believing him, Waylon kills Obadiah and leaves the motel. John comes out of the closet, surveying the carnage.
The phone rings. John answers; it’s Pitt, who’s clearly in on the scheme. John brings the money to Pitt, instructing him to deliver it to Waylon. Pitt’s cool, denying everything. John threatens Pitt with his gun until Pitt tells him where Moira and Nolan are. Pitt shows him a postcard with some quaint lake cottages, with “Cottage #8” written on the back. John takes the money and goes to the rental cottages. He bursts into Cottage #8 and finds Moira in bed with Cole Howard. Pissed, John drives to Simon’s isolated cabin. He finds it filled with barnyard animals and riddled with shotgun blasts, but inside, Simon’s okay. John demands an explanation. Simon says he and Obadiah killed Ira Hollenbach and his wife. Obadiah buried the cash but was arrested before he and Simon could go back for it. Obadiah recently got out of prison and came back. John asks about Waylon and Ingrid; Simon’s never heard of them.
John falls asleep at the wheel, and his truck ends up at a ditch. He walks back to the trailer, hides the money in a hollow log, straps Ingrid’s body to a sled, and drags her back to an oak glade near the truck. After digging a hole and tossing Ingrid in the hole, Abbie arrives on horseback. From her angle, she can see John but not what he’s doing. She drags him back to the trailer to make him lunch before he can fill the hole. Waylon arrives at the trailer, putting Abbie in a choke hold and threatening her life if John doesn’t get the money in ten minutes. Waylon notices John going for his gun and cuts off his right index finger. Then he sends John to find the money. John goes to the log, but the money’s gone! John spots his hunting rifle nearby. He quietly sets up a sniper perch and trains it on Waylon, who has Abbie in a position that makes his shot very difficult. John prays for success and fires. After hearing silence for a safe period, John returns to the trailer. Abbie’s slightly traumatized but otherwise unharmed, and Waylon’s — not quite dead. With his last gasp of life, he stabs John. Abbie in turns stabs Waylon in the throat, killing him. It starts to rain. Woozy and disoriented, John staggers through the woods until he reaches Ingrid’s gravesite. He can’t fill the hole, so he dives in to pull the body out of the brown muck. He loses consciousness.
John wakes in the hospital, with Moira by his side. She explains that Abbie found John, called an ambulance, and waited with him until it arrived. Moira senses some hero worship or, perhaps, love coming from Abbie. She also explains that the police want to give John a commendation for killing the psycho who came into their town and sliced up Obadiah. John’s a little confused as to why nobody’s mentioning Ingrid. Once he’s feeling better, John returns to the oak glade. It’s as if he and Ingrid were never there. John goes back to the log and finds the sack of money, along with a note from Simon. Simon explains that, once he knew John had the money, he went to find it, but he felt so guilty, he came back to return it and saw the open gravesite, so he buried Ingrid properly because John didn’t deserve to go to jail on account of Simon, Waylon, or Obadiah. As for Simon, he’s decided to go to Mexico until the heat dies down. Relieved, John takes the job with Cecil.
Comments:A Single Shot is a quiet, meditative but extremely well-executed thriller that has some echoes of No Country for Old Men, about a plain-spoken loser who finds himself in over his head when he steals money from the wrong people. It starts a little slow, and the ending is somewhat disappointing and unclear, but the majority of the script is very good. As written, it merits a strong consider.
The first act plunges right into the story, with John accidentally killing Ingrid and finding her box full of money. It slows down almost immediately as the writer takes his time establishing John, his lifestyle, the town, and all the other characters before he dives back into the plot. The first act does move a little slow, but once the writer puts the pieces into place, everything he’s painstakingly set up pays off in extremely satisfying ways.
As the second act follows John on his quest to understand where the money came from and who’s threatening him and his family, the writer ratchets up the suspense in almost every scene. It’s clear fairly early on who wants the money, but the duplicitous natures of Simon and Pitt are surprising, and certain sequences — notably John hiding in the closet while Waylon slices up Obadiah’s face — are startlingly effective.
This all builds to a third act standoff that’s a bit disappointing. Although the writer makes a good decision by putting Abbie in jeopardy instead of falling on the cliché of making Moira and/or Nolan into Waylon’s hostage, the writer ends up with too many loose ends: the money’s mysteriously disappeared, characters who have become integral to the plot (like Pitt, for instance) disappear, it’s unclear where Moira goes or what she does after John catches her in the arms of another man, it’s also unclear where Nolan is during all this, and most importantly, John is seen collapsing over the body of the teenage girl he killed. Backed into a corner, the writer relies on a confusing variation on the “It’s all a dream” ending — it seems that everything except John running out to try to bury Ingrid really happened, and Simon’s letter ties up all the loose ends in an out-of-place, on-the-nose voiceover montage. Considering how good the rest of the script is, this ending comes as both a surprise and a major letdown.
The characters, on the other hand, are uniformly excellent. The writer imbues even the most minor roles with rich detail and nuance, making this small town a believable, vividly rendered place. In particular, he does a great job at showing John’s mixture of confusion, guilt, and exhaustion as he tries to handle the mess he’s made quietly. There’s just one minor flaw in his character — the writer never makes us understand why John doesn’t just give the money back after that initial phone call. He sells the idea that John needs the money, but not that he needs it so badly he’d keep it despite serious threats on the lives of himself and his family. It’s a weakness in the writing that may come through in the acting.
All in all, A Single Shot is a really good script with a few issues — both major and minor — that keep it from being fully recommendable. Maybe these problems will work themselves out in the acting or the editing of the final film. Otherwise, this will remain a 7/8ths of a great story with an extremely unsatisfying ending.