Director: Jamie M. Dagg
Screenplay: Benjamin China, Paul China
Starring: Jon Bernthal, Christopher Abbott, Rosemary DeWitt, Imogen Poots
Duration: 93 min
BBFC Certification: 15
Sweet Virginia is a misleading title as Jamie M. Dagg’s second film as director is set far away from that state in small grim Alaskan town. The title refers to the name of motel run by former rodeo rider, Sam (Jon Bernthal). This is a neo-noir crime drama that may be one of the most atmospheric and depressing films you will see all year.
The film opens with a brutal triple murder. The killer, a psychopath named Elwood (Christopher Abbott) has been hired by a young woman, Lila (Imogen Poots), to kill her cheating husband, Mitchell. Too impatient to wait for him to leave the bar he’s in, Elwood enters, has an argument with Mitchell and shoots all three men dead. One of the murdered men was married to Lila’s friend, Bernadette (Rosemary DeWitt), who has been having an affair with Sam. Meanwhile, Elwood rents a room at the motel, waiting for Lila to collect her husband’s estate and pay him. Recognizing Sam from his rodeo days, the two men become friends, however things begin to escalate when Lila discovers her husband was bankrupt and she is unable to pay Elwood.
The heart of the film is the relationship between Elwood and Sam. Both hailing from Virginia, they develop a bond which ultimately proves unhealthy. While Elwood is the jumpy, energetic sociopath, Bernthal portrays Sam as his flipside, the quietly spoken world weary elder. Abbott’s performance is miles away from his usual roles (such as in Girls), no longer the charming best friend, but now a rigid powder keg ready to explode into acts of extreme violence with no warning. However, Sam is blind to this as his loneliness is relieved by Elwood’s friendship.
As much as the film focuses on the two men, there are fantastic performances by the supporting cast. Imogen Poots, who as the catalyst for Elwood’s violent spree unfortunately has too little screen time, brings the vulnerability that she showed so well in Green Room. The stand out performance belongs to Rosemary DeWitt as a widow who can’t cry over her husband’s murder. Bernadette’s was an unhappy marriage, but she still feels guilt which manifests as nightmares of her dead husband confronting her over her affair. There is a tenderness between her and Sam, a hope that love can blossom and survive in the bleakness of this Alaskan town.
Sweet Virginia doesn’t know if it is a small town drama or a thriller, but this does work to its advantage. Benjamin and Paul China’s screenplay offers an engrossing tale of anger and desperation, with excellent characterization. At times the dialogue can be a little clunky, but the quality of acting overcomes this. This is a slow burn of a film, but the China Brothers have created a deeply moving and subtly threatening story that takes familiar themes and allows director Dagg to produce an understated and moody neo-noir that recalls the crime drams of the Coen Brothers.
Sweet Virginia is a film that marks the director as one to watch.
Sweet Virginia is released on DVD by Kaleidoscope Home Entertainment.