Mild-mannered Sam (Jon Bernthal) is a retired rodeo champ living a quiet existence as a motel manager in a quiet Alaskan town. We get the impression that he’s not asking for much – just a space to live out his days as peacefully as he can, perhaps get to know Bernadette (Rosemarie DeWitt) a little better. The ripple in the very calm pond in Sam’s life comes in the form of intensely furious Elwood (Christopher Abbott), who befriends Sam and sets off a chain of events that will disturb Sam’s peace and those around him.
Sweet Virginia, a dark, moody thriller, is equal parts atmospheric, brooding, intriguing and also a little frustrating, teasing us viewers for some big “kapow” moments but not quite hitting the mark. While the opening and closing scenes are real powder keg events in the storyline, it’s the scenes in between that probably rely a little too much on the moody pace than on satisfying the narrative to tie the pieces together a little more securely.
Written by brothers Benjamin and Paul China, the original script for this film was on what is known as Hollywood’s Black List (a highly prized list of the best unproduced screenplays in Tinseltown) as far back as 2012. In fact, Paul China is no stranger to the thriller genre, having written and directed Crawl in 2011, which went on win 3 awards in that year’s Screamfest festival, including the Festival Trophy and a Best Director award. Director Jamie M. Dagg rounds out the key creative for this film, and actually scored a Best Director nomination for Sweet Virginia at the Deauville Film Festival in 2017.
For all intents and purposes, Sweet Virginia, then, should be able to leave audiences feeling all sorts of uneasiness well after the film’s end. The China brothers have already been compared to similar writer/director/producer siblings, Joel and Ethan Coen, for their take on mayhem and murder that sits just outside of what we want to be comfortable with. What Benjamin and Paul do so well is build the tension up, both in the characters and in layers and layers throughout the scenes, so that the audience is holding on to every word and crumb thrown their way with baited breath.
This is what makes Sweet Virginia such an intriguing film. Like any good suspense film, Sweet Virginia opens up possibilities of plot and character twists, building storylines and relationships and then spinning them on their heads just when you think you have your handle on them. Widowed Bernadette (Rosemarie DeWitt) leans on fellow widow Lila (Imogen Poots); both women giving the other just enough information about their thoughts to make it seem they are sharing their lives, but from Lila at least, we know there’s so much more she’s not letting on.
Similarly, both Sam (Jon Bernthal) and Elwood (Christopher Abbott) develop a strained friendship of sorts. Both men, we discover, hail from Virginia (hence the film’s title), but that’s about all we find the two have in common. Despite this, they persist with their “bonding” (if you can call it that), and their encounters throughout the film are awkward, first in an everyday kind of way, to plain threatening. The scene with the two men in the diner shows this well. There’s an element of false pretence about their interaction, the beginnings of something menacing, at least from Elwood’s side of the fence.
The mood and atmosphere of the film is established well from the get-go. It starts in a violent crime, and leaves you with that feeling throughout. Abbott’s Elwood is unhinged and we need to know this, because he’s about to spoil the whole vibe of this quaint little town. The intrigue follows throughout the film, in fact, Sweet Virginia is lost without this intrigue, the atmosphere. Although it starts with a violent opener, it’s the intensity of the violent and murky intentions that bubble just below the surface of at least 3 of its main characters that makes this film such a fascinating experience.
While the subtlety in the film is admirable, there’s not enough connection as the film’s narrative rolls along to maintain an audience’s suspenseful state. In an age where popular films seem to be rolled out by Marvel, subtlety and tone played at just the right level is a welcome breathe of fresh air. But what’s lacking in Sweet Virginia is that the tension the China brothers and Director Jamie M. Dagg take so much care in developing leads to a bit of a soft landing when certain plot lines unfold. It’s frustrating to experience, because you so badly want to be rewarded for being so tense.
In a similar sense, you want to know so much more about the characters back-stories, but there’s little room for that as you get into the plot of the film. You find you’re too far down the path of following Elwood’s actions that you are left kind of wanting more from Lila’s story. You’ve been won over by Sam’s nature but you’re also waiting for more from Bernadette. Wonderful as it is to be so invested in the characters, it’s still frustrating that you never get to really understand them.
This is probably due to the cast performances. Jon Bernthal as Sam is a far cry from his role as Frank Castle in The Punisher and his portrayal of Sam as a man simply wanting a quiet life is very well done. He lets Sam evoke an air of uneasiness with this simple life – you know there was more in his past that led him to this new lifestyle. Christopher Abbott’s portrayal of Elwood was also well done; he could have messed it up, made Elwood a typical bad guy (though we know he is), but it’s the restraint he places on the character that gives him that psychopathic creepiness factor.Sweet Virginia is a film that offers so much heightened tension. It’s suspenseful and absorbing, with a cast to carry this well. Unfortunately, it leaves the audience wanting more. Whether this is a flaw in the storytelling narrative or not is another thing, but it doesn’t leave a bad taste in your mouth. Worth a watch.
Review Score: THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Sweet Virginia is available now through Icon Home Entertainment on Digital and DVD.