×

Film Review: ‘Sweet Virginia’

Part neo-noir, part latter-day Western, this exceptional indie thriller delivers well-acted character insights amid its shadowy, small-town Alaskan setting.

With:
Jon Bernthal, Christopher Abbott, Imogen Poots, Rosemarie DeWitt, Odessa Young.

Right out of the gate, the China brothers’ noir-hearted sensibility was being compared to that of fellow film siblings Joel and Ethan Coen, as critics hailed the Australian writer-director duo’s debut “Crawl” as a modern-day “Blood Simple.” On the surface, their 2012 Black List-selected screenplay for “Sweet Virginia” dives further down that rabbit hole, featuring as it does a wife who hires a guy to bump off her own husband (a gender-flipped twist on the basic “Fargo” plot) and a hit man who’s as cold-blooded as “No Country for Old Men” killer Anton Chigurh.

And yet, going deep is what makes “Sweet Virginia” great — heck, more than great. As translated to screen by director Jamie M. Dagg (whose sure hand and smart changes elevate things considerably), Benjamin and Paul China’s script yields one of the gnarliest and most unsettling movies we’re likely to get this year. Set in a remote corner of Alaska, this small-town, blue-collar thriller is surprisingly cast, exceptionally well acted (male leads Jon Bernthal and Christopher Abbott might have easily switched roles, though it’s far more effective in this arrangement), and executed potently enough to leave a lasting impression, like scar tissue after a serious burn.

Let’s face it: Most Coen brothers knockoffs aren’t very good. There’s something far too squirrely in the siblings’ wickedly funny, regionally infused sensibility to be replicated, and nearly everyone who tries falls flat. But “Sweet Virginia” is a dark batch of backwoods whiskey, as Dagg capably distills what works best in other genre movies (not just the Coens’, obviously), recognizing atmosphere and psychology as this elixir’s most vital ingredients. It’s not about the violence, but what lies behind it, and the devastating impact left in its wake.

The movie opens with a brutal killing, as an outsider cruises into town, lurking in his car outside a local bar till well after midnight before bursting in on a friendly card game and murdering all three men in the establishment, taking money from the register practically as an afterthought. What have they done to deserve this? And who is this monster, who brings violence to a community that needs guns only for hunting, changing the entire dynamic of a town so small that everyone (believes he) knows everyone’s business already?

It was Dagg’s idea to relocate the movie to Alaska, though he kept the title, turning it into the element that Abbott and Bernthal’s characters have in common, allowing them to bond where otherwise each would probably keep to himself: Both have roots in Virginia, but have run off to Alaska for their own reasons. Strong yet soft-spoken, “The Walking Dead” star Benthal plays Sam Rossi, an ex-rodeo champ who now operates a spartan motel on what feels like the brink of the world. He’s a damaged-goods drifter catering to other drifters, running in place from some heartbreak he can’t quite forget.

As the hit man from the opening scene, Abbott comes across as even more of a cipher. He checks into Sam’s hotel under the name of Elwood, and reveals only fragments of himself to others — although the film privileges us by eavesdropping on a private moment in which he calls his ailing mother from the hotel room, offering a valuable insight into the torment that fuels his temper (a dimension overlooked in characters like Chigurh, where the less we know, the scarier they seem).

A few scenes after the killing, we learn what motivated it, as Elwood meets with Lila McCabe (Imogen Poots), the woman who hired him, on a scenic bridge. This could be a romantic setting, if the two characters weren’t such icy sociopaths. In Lila’s case, years of disrespect and misery have pushed her to ordering her husband’s murder. But for all her calculations, she hadn’t foreseen that others would be hurt in the process. Now she’s all kinds of desperate, worse off than before, and willing to jeopardize others’ safety to save herself — including that of a local friend (Rosemarie DeWitt) also left widowed by the shooting with secrets of her own to keep.

But this review already risks giving away too much. Much of the movie’s potency comes from the way it withholds certain information until just the right moment, and how the combination of several seemingly contradictory brushstrokes can render a character we perceived one way in a completely new light — although light is by far the scarcest resource on offer here.

“Sweet Virginia” is an uncommonly dark movie. Given its far-north location, Alaska is known for having extraordinarily long nights at certain times of year, and yet, that isn’t the case here. Even by day, the shadows seem to have shadows, as Canadian cinematographer Jessica Gagné creates a world of such murky moral contradictions, you have to squint at times to make out the shape-shifting personalities that lurk within. It’s an aesthetic that practically demands to be seen on the big screen, as few digital home theaters can handle the nuances of such darkness, nor the level of communion between audience and character that the movie demands.

It’s not so much that the story is complicated. It isn’t. Rather, there’s a level of subtlety operating here that defies the genre. When the violence happens, it’s intense, and the threat hovers over the rest of the movie (by following Elwood’s car into town during the opening scene, Dagg is able to create another high-tension set piece around the mere suggestion that the headlights Lila sees in her rearview mirror might be his). Even though the sense of menace grows so oppressive at times, you can hardly breathe for minutes on end, it’s the characters’ ever-evolving inner mechanics that fuel our engagement. We want them to survive, of course, but mostly, we want to understand them.

Ultimately, it’s this strange alchemy — the way that a terse script can leave so much unsaid, combined with such a talented ensemble’s ability to suggest all the details left either in silence or in darkness — that makes “Sweet Virginia” such a haunting character study. By shifting the China brothers’ script from Virginia to this remote frontier, Dagg has forged a connection not only to film noir, but also to the lawlessness of the Western. After all, what is a retired rodeo hero if not a cowboy who has hung up his spurs?

Film Review: 'Sweet Virginia'

Reviewed at Tribeca Film Festival (Spotlight Narrative), April 22, 2017. Running time: 95 MIN.

Production: An Exhibit presentation, in association with XYZ Films, of an Automatik, Oddfellow Production. (International sales: XYZ Films, Los Angeles.) Producers: Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, Chris Ferguson, Fernando Loureiro, Robert Vasconcellos. Executive producers: Rian Cahill, Jesse Savath, Aram Tertzakian, Nate Bolotin. Co-producers: Gabe Scarpelli, Marlaina Mah, Jon Bernthal, Christopher Abbott, Imogen Poots, Odessa Young, Jonathan Tucker, Joseph Lyle Taylor, Garry Chalk, Jared Abrahamson, Gabrielle Rose, Rosemarie DeWitt.

Crew: Director: Jamie M. Dagg. Screenplay: The China Brothers. Camera (color, widescreen): . Editor: Duff Smith. Music: Brooke Blair, Will Blair.

With:

Jon Bernthal, Christopher Abbott, Imogen Poots, Rosemarie DeWitt, Odessa Young.

More Film

  • Myst Computer Game

    'Myst' Film and TV Rights Sell to Village Roadshow

    “Myst,” the influential video game that helped usher in the CD-ROM era, may inspire an ambitious multi-platform film and television universe. Village Roadshow Entertainment Group, the Australian-American co-producer and co-financier of the “Matrix” and “Sherlock Holmes” franchises, has acquired the rights to the first-person graphic adventure. For those born post-90s, “Myst” was wildly popular and [...]

  • ‘Half-Sister’ Director Damjan Kozole on Compassion,

    ‘Half-Sister’ Director Damjan Kozole on Compassion, Learning From the Past

    Two estranged half-siblings from a small coastal town in Slovenia spend the better part of their young lives ignoring each other’s existence. But when circumstances force them to move into the same cramped apartment, they have no choice but to come to terms with the past that binds them, while trying to decide how to [...]

  • The Traitor

    MMC Studios, One of Germany's Biggest Production Facilities, Changes Hands

    Germany’s MMC Studios, which has hosted such recent international productions as Joseph Gordon-Levitt thriller “7500” and Marco Bellocchio’s Cannes competition film “The Traitor,” is changing hands. Frankfurt-based investment company Novum Capital has acquired the facility in Cologne, one of Germany’s biggest film and TV studios, from Luxembourg private equity fund Lenbach Equity Opportunities I. The [...]

  • Box Office: 'Annabelle Comes Home' Kicks

    Box Office: 'Annabelle Comes Home' Kicks Off Tuesday With Solid $3.5 Million

    Warner Bros. and New Line’s “Annabelle Comes Home” collected a strong $3.5 million in Tuesday night previews. The supernatural thriller is expected to earn $30 million over its first five days in theaters. “Annabelle Comes Home” is the third “Annabelle” movie and seventh entry in the Conjuring franchise. Preview ticket sales are in line with [...]

  • Naomi Watts Thriller 'The Wolf Hour'

    Naomi Watts Thriller 'The Wolf Hour' Picked Up for U.S. by Brainstorm Media

    “The Wolf Hour,” a psychological thriller starring Naomi Watts and Jennifer Ehle, has been picked up for North America by Brainstorm Media. HanWay Films has also closed sales for a host of European and Asian territories. Directed by Alistair Banks Griffin, “The Wolf Hour” features Oscar-nominated Watts as June, a former countercultural celebrity who lives [...]

  • A Star Is Born

    'A Star Is Born' Soundtrack Surpasses Global Sales of 6 Million

    Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s onscreen chemistry continues to be felt on the official soundtrack to “A Star is Born,” which just surpassed 6 million albums sold globally and has been certified double platinum in the U.S. Released by Interscope Records in 2018, the album debuted atop the charts and remains the highest-selling album of [...]

  • monty-python-are-fifty-in-2019

    Previously Unreleased Monty Python Audio to Get Airing for Troupe's 50th Anniversary

    Michael Palin will exec-produce series of radio specials containing never-before-released audio from Monty Python as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations for the iconic comedy troupe. They will play on the BBC in the U.K. and then go out in the U.S. Palin and his fellow Pythons – John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content