EIFF 2017: Sweet Virginia 2017

EIFF 2017 – Sweet Virginia

Director: Jamie M Dagg

Starring: Jon Bernthal, Christopher Abbott, Imogen Poots, Rosemarie DeWitt

Run Time: 105mins

Sweet Virginia is the sophomore feature effort from director Jamie Dagg and is based on a script by the China Brothers which made the 2012 black list (which is an annual list of the hottest unmade scripts in Hollywood).

Ironically despite the title the film is not set in Virginia but a small town Alaska. Sweet Virginia is the name of the motel run by Sam (Jon Bernthal) who also comes from Virginia and was an ex-rodeo champion forced into retirement after a major injury. He befriends one of the motel guests Elwood (Christopher Abbot) who he immediately bonds with as Elwood is a fellow Virginian and Elwood’s father used to watch Sam ride. What Sam can’t know is Elwood is a contract killer.

This shown is in the very opening scene where Elwood interrupts an afterhour’s card game in a bar and demands breakfast. He is quickly told to where to go, only to come back and shoot the place up killing the three men that confronted him. It is as tense, twitchy scene that immediately sets the prevailing mood of the film.

Soon after we are introduced to two of the widows of the dead men, Lila (Imogen Poots) and Bernadette (Rosemarie DeWitt), who don’t seem quite as torn up about the death of their husbands as one may expect. Is one of them or possibly of both of them in on the murders? It is unclear but a murky picture soon emerges and sets all four characters on a path that can surely only lead to more violence.

The plot here is a simple one and there is no great rush from the director to hurry matters along as Dagg seems more interested in digging into character relationships as well as their past and current traumas, this is not to say the film is sluggish howeveras the director does a very good job of building mood and atmosphere with even some minor-key scenes seemingly fraught with tension.

The film does not go down a standard route either. Due to his role as The Punisher in the second season of Daredevil it surely would have been tempting to place Bernthal as the badass vigilante hero but instead he is a fairly broken man who still limps from his accident, has moved as far away from his rodeo day glories as he can and is maybe suffering from the beginnings of early on-set dementia. Despite Bernthal’s more usual tough guy role’s he plays the role sympathetically and believable.
The standout performance though goes to Christopher Abbott who is glowering, intense and chilling as Elwood in the type of role he is fast becoming known for. Unfortunately the women are given less to do here but both Poots and DeWitt put in decent performances and manage to flesh out their respective characters.

The film also can’t quite escape it influences as there is a strong Coen Brothers feel present, particularly from “No Country for Old Men”. You can all see other connections to things such as “Winter’s Bone” and maybe even a little “Killer Joe” in there too.
The location does make it stand out though as the Alaskan landscape makes the film feel that bit more isolated from the world and the wilderness is also beautifully captured by cinematographer Jessica Lee Gagne.

Verdict: It may not be up there with “No Country for Old Men”, not much is, but this is a tense and bruising thriller with a pair of great performances from Bernthal and Abbott.

words by Scott Murphy