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Categories: Movie Reviews

Great turns from Christopher Abbott and Jon Bernthal make Sweet Virginia one of the year’s top thrillers to look out for.

With TV currently in its Golden Age a lot of genres have proven to work better with a long-form series rather than a one-off entry; case in point, crime thriller with the likes of Fargo and Twin Peaks making the most of their extended run-time. I bring this up because while it’s very easy to tell when a movie needs to be cut shorter, new Alaskan thriller Sweet Virginia is one of those rare films that could benefit from being longer.

The story is the weakest element, opening with three friends, Tom, Lloyd  and Mitchell, playing poker in Lloyd’s bar when they’re all killed by Elwood (Christopher Abbott), a contract killer hired by Mitchell’s wife Lila (Imogen Poots). While waiting for Lila to pay him, Elwood finds himself at the Sweet Virginia, a motel owned by former rodeo champ Sam (Jon Bernthal) and the two men start an uneasy friendship while Elwood is in town, all the while Sam contemplates whether or not to continue his affair with Tom’s widow Bernadette (Rosemarie DeWitt) now that her husband is dead.

When it appears that Lila can’t get the money, Elwood is forced to take drastic measures to get his payment, however their plan takes them dangerously close to Sam and forcing him into a fight he wants no part of.

As sad as I am to say it, that’s actually a fair bit of the plot and it’s nothing particularly special, hired killer comes to town, can’t get paid, goes looking for money elsewhere, we’ve seen this story before and the film has very little new to offer. Where it manages to deliver is through Sam and his relationship to the people around him, particularly Bernadette because their affair started a good time before Tom’s death but they still find comfort in one another even though they argue over whether or not to come clean with their relationship.

The film’s issue is that there feels like there’s a bigger story here, Lila’s reasoning for killing her husband are way too easy but we never get anything else to explain why she hired Elwood. Sam has a surrogate father/daughter relationship with Maggie, the receptionist at the motel, born out of his own daughter’s passing and Maggie’s father’s absence but we don’t ever find out what happened to either of them. It’s those world building scenes that are hinted at but never given enough time to develop properly that feels like the film is making itself smaller than it actually is, like the film forewent its own world-building in favour of a good, but all-too familiar, storyline.

Characters definitely helped the film, particularly Bernthal and Abbott, Bernthal’s made a name with unhinged characters like Shane and Frank Castle but Sam is a move away from that. Sam is a very passive character; he walks with a limp, he suffers from muscle tremors and on the whole he tries to avoid conflict as much as possible. However this is almost always seen as a detriment because even easy conversations he tries not to involve himself with like telling a nosy tenant to keep quiet or discussing his relationship with Bernadette. It’s a strong role for Bernthal because it throws him against type and allows him to portray a weak character without making Sam pitiful.

His counterpart Elwood gives the film an interesting villain, from his first scene it’s clear that there’s a variant of sociopathic or psycho-pathetic tendencies, either way his speech patterns and tendency to just talk without thinking all showcase someone who’s not all there. Elwood is different to most because while the cliché is to have someone calm, Elwood’s much more threatening and unpredictable persona makes for a better villain, especially with how easily he can mask himself in the right company.

The supporting cast do their best to help build up the film but there’s not enough for them to actually do outside of the main plot. Poots is good as the desperate Lila, making plans without checking if she can pull them off but she disappears for most of the final act so she never really comes into play. DeWitt has the most to do as Bernadette with her affair with Sam being a constant source of light. With her husband dead Bernadette is looking to finally make her and Sam official but Sam’s refusal to admit that he loves her is hurting her more than she wants to admit. It might not sound like much but her inclusion in the film is welcome, particularly during a home invasion in the third act

Director Jamie Dagg shows a lot of potential, the Alaskan setting gives off an almost old-west style of film-making with lots of silent corners and thick trees for menace to hide in. One of the things that set this film apart was its use of lighting, a lot of the film takes place at night with only shadows to light the scene but Dagg uses them to his advantage, never fully revealing anything and letting your imagination fill in the blanks. It’s an easy but effective tool that allows Dagg to ramp up the tension, the aforementioned home invasion scene is the film’s highlight for how Dagg utilises the pitch-black tension to its best outcome while a scene where Lila may or may not be followed has all the markings of a classic paranoia scene trying to figure out what’s happening.

Sweet Virginia has a lot going for it and could stand as a fine new entry to the thriller genre, it’s well-acted with Bernthal and Abbott making a great pairing and it’s exceedingly well-made with Dagg using shadows and tension to thrill the audience. It’s just the story that drags it down, not even that it’s too familiar, but because it shows so much more potential and never lives up to itself. This could’ve easily made for a great 6-8 hour mini-series, as it stands it’s just a good but flawed 100 minute movie.

Matthew Wilson

Operating out of Livingston, Scotland, Matthew Wilson has been self-publishing reviews since 2012 - amassing over 1000 and climbing on his personal account at MovieFanCentral- and has produced a number of short films for his Graded Unit at Edinburgh College. Matthew hopes to start writing and directing his own productions one day, having written several unpublished scripts for film and television.

Posted on Jun 26, 2017

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