Film Review: Sweet Virginia (IFC Films)

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Day one of Cinepocalypse at the Music Box Theatre (see full coverage HERE) in Chicago brought the Midwest debut of Jamie Dagg‘s Sweet Virginia, a taut crime drama in the spirit of Walter Hill‘s Johnny Handsome and Steve KlovesFlesh and Bone. Which means it’s right in my wheelhouse. I don’t think there is a type of film sub genre that I love more. The rugged, quiet and pained hero, the woman who loves him who has her own demons, the vicious villain who has virtually no moral compass, and the unwieldy other woman throwing everything askew. Yeah, this is more specific to Sweet Virginia than the sub genre itself, but ya know…

As always, I will say that, to avoid spoilers, read no further until you’ve had the chance to see the film yourself. It will play in select theaters and be available On Demand starting November 17th. So: SPOILER ALERT.

Set in a small Alaskan town at a time of the year when people can actually walk around with short sleeves (that window of time has to be preciously short, right?), things start off horrifically with a triple homicide for, seemingly, no apparent reason. Elwood (a chilling, unsettling Christopher Abbott) walks into the local bar after hours and, after getting into a confusing, tense conversation with one of the bar owner’s friends, comes back to shoot everyone in sight.

Besides the bar owner, Elwood’s victims included the husbands of Bernadette (Rosemarie DeWitt) and Lila (Imogen Poots), who console one another at a shared memorial at Bernadette’s house. Lila seems almost relieved, saying she threw away all of her husband’s things. Bernadette isn’t exactly broken up either, but has resignation about jettisoning everything of the man she shared a life with for years. We soon find out why both aren’t as broken up about the loss of their spouses, but I don’t want to give more away. But one of them may have an eye for a certain motel owner named Sam (Jon Bernthal). Alas, I went in pretty cold and want you to do so as well.

I will say that, on his second feature, director Daggs shows an assuredness that spells really great things in his future. I haven’t seen his debut feature, River, but I’ll be on the lookout for it. A big bonus for me was the cinematography by Jessica Lee Gagne. This appears to be her first English language film judging by her IMDB credits. I was floored by the shots of Poots and Abbott on the bridge, as well as the one shot of Abbott that followed him from inside a car, past a couple of guys he exchanges words with, to the phone booth, to *redacted* and back into the car again – all taken from inside the vehicle. Never mind the intensity of the scene itself. I love the difficulty level of setting up that sort of shot and the actors having to play everything perfectly or do the entire thing all over again. It may be Abbott’s best moment in the film.

And boy does he have a lot of them. Abbott (It Comes at Night, HBO’s Girls) is on track to becoming a major presence in film and this is the role and film that will surely open up a lot of doors. The person introducing the film at Cinepocalypse is right, if there was any justice, Abbott would be getting buzz about best supporting actor nominations for awards season. Not sure if that will happen, but he’s just that damn good.

But Sweet Virginia is anchored by Bernthal’s performance as the former champion bull rider and now motel owner, Sam. A photo on his bedside table of a woman and a little girl is enough to let us know that he’s lost something. His framed rodeo number is another. Sam took a fall that messed his head up and now has tremors and a limp. His time as a bull rider and a Virginian are long past him. Bernthal is the type of guy Tony Soprano often wondered about when he asked “What happened to Gary Cooper? The strong, silent type.” Well, Bernthal may be the modern day equivalent.

Sweet Virginia (gotta wonder if Dagg is a big Rolling Stones fan) is one of the year’s best films, one that I will re-watch a bunch over time I just know it. I don’t know what else to say to convince you to see this film. But do it.

Sweet Virginia

Cinepocalypse

 

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