By Elias Savada.
As the latest shadowy slant on the malevolent small town subterfuge melodrama – following a few weeks after George Clooney’s Coen Brothers-inspired Suburbicon, which takes the neo-noir thriller sub-genre to totally outlandish levels – Sweet Virginia is a more personal, low-key affair that follows the aftermath of a triple murder in a small Alaskan town. The only brothers around this second feature from director Jamie M. Dagg (following 2015’s Laos-set River) have the surname China (first names: Benjamin and Paul), and their screenplay – which made the 2012 Black List highlighting the best unproduced scripts, based on input from nearly 300 Hollywood execs – goes more for simmer and boil instead of broil and splatter. Don’t watch the film expecting Coen hijinks, which the program notes pushed when the film world premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. Although some of the characters might look familiar, Dagg’s take is more emotional than visceral, at least after the initial bullet burst. It’s no laughing matter, outside the fresh and fleeting smell of gallows humor.
When a friendly game of cards is interrupted by Elwood (Christopher Abbott, HBO’s Girls), an angry stranger with a sadistic appetite for murder, the one thing you’d expect to pop up would be the police, but after a brief cameo, they disappear until well into the film’s third act. Even in the film’s bucolic one- or two-stoplight town, cradled amongst the scenic landscape of plentiful pine trees, majestic mountains, and lengthy freight trains where Sweet Virginia unfolds, nary a state trooper, FBI Agent Dale Cooper, or the cast from Criminal Minds pop up to investigate the slayings. It’s the most egregious error in an otherwise well-constructed and well-acted film. So, obviously, the film isn’t a police thriller.
This indie U.S.-Canadian effort plays out as a moody, pulpy character drama about the residents and employees attached to the Sweet Virginia Motor Hotel, where a good many itinerant guests get paid by the hour. Settling into his local routine as the motel manager (the second film this year in which that occupation takes on a starring role, after Willem Dafoe in The Florida Project) is Sam Rossi, a former rodeo bull rider from Virginia who took one too many falls. Born and raised in Washington DC, Jon Bernthal (The Walking Dead, Netflix’s forthcoming The Punisher, dozens of character roles on the big and small screen, and an occasional visitor to my local fitness club) does a grand job capturing a sullen man with a damaged soul. Someone who covers his emotional and physical aches and pains with a ruffled appearance, a slouching demeanor, and a small pile of meds. There’s a wife and daughter in the photo by his bed, but their absence adds to his misery.
When he’s not trying (unsuccessfully) to get the unruly occupant of Room 128 to quiet down, giving supportive paternal advice to his young assistant Maggie (Odessa Young), or shuffling about his mundane chores, Sam gets wooed and partially healed by Bernadette Barrett (Rosemarie Dewitt, at her earth mother best), whose backstory is too truncated to understand other than, like Sam, it involves a failed marriage.
The script finds Elwood, an extended stay patron at Sam’s establishment, also hailing from the Old Dominion and recalling his younger days when he and his dad were avid fans of a younger Sam the rodeo champ, when he was a regular in the Middle Atlantic circuit. The cowboy’s loneliness is ripe for the awkward, calculating Elwood to foist a light yet seemingly genuine friendship, fostered by chit chat, sharing grub at the local diner, and mumbling greetings in the motel parking lot. Elwood, a bipolar bundle of family angst, is just biding his time to let a local financial arrangement play itself out. Needless to say, things go awry, making several of the characters antsy, confused, and angry. Violent deeds and betrayal ensue. Sam’s clueless nature about his new friend’s true nature keeps the audience guessing on how the story will tie up its storylines.
Sam’s relationship with Bernie offers the film’s most tender moments, but Sweet Virginia is a film filled with darkness thanks to Dagg’s direction, the widescreen cinematography and stretched-out takes by Jessica Lee Gagné, and the bass-intense dread-inducing score by Will and Brooke Blair. There is a deep sense of menacing anxiety that pervades this city-cat-vs.-town-mouse tale.
Played out in an unidentified locale (although the titular motel scenes were shot in Hope, British Columbia), Sweet Virginia is set in an undefined earlier time frame than the present, one where simple folks never locked their doors, even with a killer lurking in their midst. I dare you to try that today.
As for Jon Bernthal’s brooding performance, it’s memorable no matter the time or place.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He served as an executive producer on the 2015 horror film German Angst, Penny Lane’s award-winning documentary Nuts!, and the forthcoming supernatural thriller Ayla. He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2017 by Centipede Press).