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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 thrillers. With the likes of Fargo and Twin Peaks making the most of their extended runtime. 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. Forcing him into a fight he wants no part of.

The film’s issue is that there feels like there’s a bigger story here. 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.

Performances definitely elevate the film, particularly Bernthal and Abbott. Bernthal’s made a name for himself with unhinged characters like Shane from The Walking Dead, and Frank Castle from The Punisher, but Sam is a move away from that. He’s 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. 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.

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 of. 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.

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.

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.

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Posted on Jun 26, 2017

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