[VIFF 2017] REVIEW: 'Sweet Virginia'

Christopher Abbott and Jon Bernthal in  Sweet Virginia , directed by Jamie M. Dagg.

Christopher Abbott and Jon Bernthal in Sweet Virginia, directed by Jamie M. Dagg.

Sweet Virginia has, and will continue to, draw strong comparisons to a Coen brothers film, because it definitely feels like one. Almost everything is shot in the shadows and hidden by walls, doors or corridors, there’s a murder plot gone wrong, and it has a roster of quirky and violent characters.

Set in an unnamed sleepy Alaska town, the story begins when Elwood (Christopher Abbott) walks into a bar and kills three people, only one of which, we later learn, is the actual target. Elwood often mumbles to himself and his temper gets the better of him sometimes, but he’s forced to be patient and spend his time in a motel operated by Sam (Jon Bernthal) while he awaits payment for his hit. Sam, a former rodeo champ who inherits the Sweet Virginia motel after the death of his brother, prefers not to bother the motel’s guests and keeps to himself, except when he’s acting as a surrogate dad to the motel’s only other employee, Lila (Odessa Young). He struggles to come to terms with his affair with a married woman, Bernie (the underrated Rosemarie Dewitt), who’s also dragged into the horrific murder when the husband of her best friend, Lila (Imogen Poots, in a very good performance), is one of the victims.

Things really start to go wrong when Elwood’s promised payment is never delivered, forcing him to find other (violent) ways to get what he’s promised. As the film reaches its climax, what was supposed to look like a small-time robbery gone wrong turns into a taut, cat-and-mouse chase when Sam starts piecing everything together, culminating in a final confrontation with Elwood.

The acting is worth noting in this film, especially Abbott as Elwood, who will inevitably draw comparisons to Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men. He is, without a doubt, the most captivating character on the screen, and certainly the driving force throughout. It’s not really an Oscar-worthy performance because as well as Abbott embodies this psychologically disturbed killer, the character itself isn’t always very well-formed; while Chigurh obviously has a very strict set of rules he follows and brings a sense of foreboding anytime he’s on the screen, Elwood’s character is more uneven and has these convenient moments of compassion (mercy? pity?) that seems to only further the plot and save other key characters from certain death rather than really solidifying his character.

And as good as Bernthal is in most films, he’s miscast as the tired, weary motel owner looking for some peace. In a post-film Q&A with up-and-coming director Jamie M. Dagg, he noted that in the original screenplay the film was supposed to be set in Virginia (hence the title), and that the lead was supposed to be a much older man. Those who know Bernthal know that he’s very physically imposing actor who often plays macho roles, such as in Fury, The Accountant, Baby Driver, and Netflix’s The Punisher – in fact, he left the day after the final day of filming to begin Netflix’s highly-anticipated spin-off series – so he’s difficult to digest as a shy, sensitive and meek motel manager who often wishes he was doing something else instead.  

The main problem with Sweet Virginia is that it can be a draining film to watch. It lacks some much-needed brevity, and from the first shootout in the first few minutes of the film to the end, it doesn’t take any breaks. The tension is very well-crafted by Dagg, but the plot can slow to a crawl and its key characters sometimes feel a little too underdeveloped.

Sweet Virginia gets three stars out of four.

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