Sweet Virginia

Studio: Shout! Factory

Apr 10, 2018 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Given the title and director Jamie M. Dagg’s sweeping, ominous vistas of thick clouds enveloping green mountains, viewers can be forgiven if they assume his second feature, Sweet Virginia, is set in some tucked away corner of Appalachia. It’s actually set in Alaska, but one gets the sense that the filmmakers are attempting to convey that their tale of small-town murder and deception could play out anywhere in America, a place where knowing everyone in town doesn’t mean you know them at all.  

The neo-noir Americana of the Coen brothers seems like it would be a natural touchstone for Sweet Virginia, but the film has no interest in the bizarre supporting characters and opaque symbolism that define their work. Instead, it feels more akin to the naturalistic indies made by star Christopher Abbott and his collaborators at Borderline Films, like Martha Marcy May Marlene and James White. Less concerned with plot than a typical noir thriller, Sweet Virginia is more invested in mood and in letting its excellent cast come together across both dinner tables and drawn guns. Dagg and his co-creators succeed more at the latter than the former. Despite crisp, chilly compositions and heavy use of blacks by cinematographer Jessica Lee Gagne, the script by brothers Benjamin and Paul China doesn’t bring anything new to the genre and brings no specificity to the nameless small town it’s meant to explore.  

If Sweet Virginia overachieves in any regard, it’s with its casting and performances. Sam, a good-natured but wounded rodeo cowboy turned motel manager, is the sort of intense, good ol’ boy part that Jon Bernthal could play in his sleep. But while most his performances - The Punisher, The Walking Dead, Pilgrimage - utilize his hair-trigger physicality, boxer’s nose and close-cropped hair to convey barely restrained violence, Sam allows Bernthal to play a variation on his established persona. Sam’s bushy beard, mane of wild black hair and limping gait give him the appearance of an ambling bear, a far cry from kicked-dog-about-to-bite intensity of his more popular roles. Acting as counterweight is Christopher Abbott as Elwood, a rambling, off-putting hitman who blows into town for a job and can’t seem to leave. Bonding with Sam over their shared home state of the title, the scenes that depict their burgeoning friendship are some of the film’s most engaging. The awkward earnestness that Abbott displayed on the first two seasons of Girls takes on a real menace here. The character forgoes much of the standard badass tropes that define cinematic hitmen; Elwood is the kind of guy you’d cross the street to avoid, a dead-eyed, stiff-legged weirdo who compulsively mumbles to himself in a slurring drawl. As an unadorned tool of violence, he’s emblematic of the film as a whole. The short sequences where the camera finds him alone in his motel room, staring into darkened mirrors while the bass and cellos of the score moan in the background are deeply unsettling.  

The film fares less well in its treatment of its female leads, played by Imogen Poots and Rosemarie DeWitt. The very British Poots excels at her American accent and DeWitt has believable chemistry with Bernthal, but one gets the sense that their characters would have benefited from a two-hour version of this ninety-minute film. Like Bernthal and Abbott, they’re reliable, welcome presences for a film that leans heavily on performances and tone rather than writing or originality.



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