Set in a remote town somewhere in the heavily forested edges of Alaska, Sweet Virginia unspools a decidedly wicked, yet often deeply felt neo-noir tale of murder-for-hire gone wrong-which is pretty much what always happens in these deals. A lot of the mechanics in the script by Benjamin and Paul China (billed as "The China Brothers" in a perhaps too-obvious nod to the Coens) are boilerplate familiar to the point of being rote, but the manner in which they're assembled and played out by sophomore director Jamie M. Dagg and his expressive cast of weathered character actors largely redeems them.
Jon Bernthal plays the film's protagonist, a heavily bearded former rodeo champ named Sam who inherited a small roadside motel from his brother. Despite being a has-been, a former celebrity of sorts who seems to be on the run from something, Sam maintains a sense of humanity in the wilderness, running the motel like an escape from the world for himself and whoever stays there. Unbenownst to him, one of his most recent guests, a seemingly unassuming man who calls himself Elwood (Christopher Abbott), is a hired assassin who killed three local men in cold blood in the film's bravura opening scene. Elwood was hired to kill only one of the men, but he slaughtered them all instead out of either convenience or unrestrained anger, which sets off a chain of events that overtakes the lives of not just Sam, but two women who lost their husbands in the killing, Lila (Imogen Poots) and Bernadette (Rosemarie DeWitt), the latter of whom is having an affair with Sam.
The manner in which all the pieces align is part of the film's appeal, although its real heart is in the unexpected connection that Sam and Elwood make after Elwood recognizes Sam due to his father having been a fan of his during his rodeo days. They both hail from Virginia (hence the title, where the film was originally intended to be set), and they tenuously bond in a late-night diner in one of those scenes where not a whole lot is said, but a great deal is conveyed. Bernthal and Abbott are both very good in this regard, as they are playing world-weary characters who live largely inside themselves and don't reveal much to the outside world, which is a tough gambit for a character study. Yet, they manage to make it work, so much so that we genuinely feel concern about the foregone conclusion that Elwood's occupation and role in the opening-scene triple murder will eventually be revealed, thus necessitating some kind of showdown.
Director Jamie M. Dagg, whose only other feature credit is the 2015 Laos-set thriller River, has a solid command of the genre material with which he's working, and even if he never transcends its trappings, he makes them work about as well as they can in a lean, sometimes mean kind of way. He and French-Canadian cinematographer Jessica Lee Gagn don't give in to a lot of obvious clichs, but instead give the film a hard, lived-in look that is long on texture and short on noir-esque shadows and chiaroscuro lighting. Sweet Virginia takes place in hard northern sunlight and dim fluorescent lighting, which feels just right for a story of conflict among people trying to escape.
Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © IFC Films
Overall Rating: (3)
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