Sweet Virginia has a slow, menacing burn, which harks back to the classic street-wise films of the 1970s. I really enjoy these type of movies. They might come across as very straight forward, but hyper-realism is their style.
Sweet Virginia is soaked in gritty realism. Its Alaskan setting is a brooding place, where Sam (Jon Bernthal) manages a rundown motel. An injury robbed him of rodeo stardom, so now he spends his days in a job far from ideal. He’s not a happy man, jaded by his past, but Bernadette (Rosemarie DeWitt) keeps him afloat in a routine affair.
Things get complicated when he meets Elwood (Christopher Abbott), a new resident at the motel. He takes a creepy interest in Sam, invites him to dinner and seeks a weird bromance of sorts. Elwood also has dark business with a local girl, Lila (Imogen Poots). Besides this, we don’t know much about him. Who is this guy really? What does he want? Is he an lone wolf or a troubled soul?
It’s fair to say there is nothing especially new in Sweet Virginia, but there’s more than enough going on to keep the plot ticking, despite a flimsy story. Anyhow, we shouldn’t dwell on set pieces here, as atmosphere and performance take the reigns. The mood is always threatening. There are murky, rough camera shots which give the film an unpleasant vibe. We hardly ever see the sun in this Virginia town. It’s like it exists in the shadows in nowheresville.
Bernthal is good in the lead role. Once again, he goes all Tom Hardy-esque, but in a mould different to his roles in Netflix’s Daredevil and The Punisher. In these TV shows, he’s a psycho anti-villain, who dispatches people in all kinds of shocking ways. In Sweet Virginia, he’s quiet with a friendly manner. He isn’t your typical on-screen hero, not like the type who can take out four guys at once. His body language is meek, but he’s not afraid to take action when called for.
With all respect to Bernthal, Abbott is the one to watch. He gives an unhinged performance as Elwood, a character who doesn’t immediately scream danger but is a total nut-job. While he’s an effective villain, I get the feeling the filmmakers wanted to make their own version of Anton Chigurgh, from No Country for Old Men. Regardless of their intentions, Elwood is an insane creation.
That said, Sweet Virginia gives us a wounded hero and an ice-cold killer for a brutal showdown. The plot is secondary in favour of suspense, character studies and knife-twisting thrills. It might lack a strong narrative engine, but it has an enjoyable and uncluttered set-up.
It’s a satisfying film with a great cast that propels the action forward in interesting ways. If you have a taste for American neo-noirs, Sweet Virginia is for you. It’s a low-key thriller with a big pay off.
Director: Jamie M. Dagg
Writers: The China Brothers
Stars: Jon Bernthal, Christopher Abbott, Imogen Poots, Rosemary DeWitt.
Distributor: IFC Films
Run Time: 93 minutes.