SWEET VIRGINIA: A Gripping Thriller That Should Have Been Longer
Sweet Virginia is a gripping, atmospheric movie, with stellar acting and a characterful script who's only fault is it is not long enough.
Every year since 2005, film executive Franklin Leonard has published The Black List, a list of the most-liked unproduced screenplays that have been floating around Hollywood. Now in its second decade, The Black List has gone on to yield a dazzling selection of films loved by critics and audiences alike. Previous entries have included Manchester By The Sea, John Wick. Whiplash, Little Miss Sunshine, The Diving Bell And The Butterfly, The Hunger Games, Arrival, The King’s Speech and Inglorious Basterds.
The latest screenplay to have found its way off The Black List, and into cinemas, is Sweet Virginia.
A small-town Alaskan bar, after closing. The owner and two friends play cards and chat. A man, whom we later know as Elwood (Christopher Abbott), enters and asks for some food. One of the friends says they’re closed, Elwood ignores him. After a brief tussle, Elwood leaves, only to return minutes later and shoot all of them dead.
Several days later, and the town is still in shock. No one has any idea who would have committed the massacre or why; the best guess is that it was a robbery gone wrong. At a wake for the men, Bernie (Rosemarie DeWitt), and Lila (Imogen Poots), two women widowed by the incident, commiserate.
Before long it is revealed that they both have secrets. Lila is responsible for the hit job, though she only intended for her husband to be killed. Elwood was the assassin she hired, and when it turns out she doesn’t have the money to pay him, she finds herself in the firing line as his next target.
Bernie isn’t too distraught by the murder of her husband because she’s been having an affair with Sam (Jon Bernthal), an ex-rodeo rider turned motel owner. And it’s in Sam’s motel that Elwood chooses to hole up whilst he’s menacing Lila. The amiable Sam soon makes friends with the dangerously unstable younger man. Little does he know what his new friend is capable of…
An Exceptional Cast
An exceptional cast does not always equal an exceptional film. Here it does. Individually, Jon Bernthal, Imogen Poots, Christopher Abbott, and Rosemary DeWitt are almost always the best part of any film they’re in. To have the four of them in one movie is such a treat. It’s doubtful there’s been a better cast this year, or at least such an interesting one.
Whilst the four actors each have an important role in this intricately plotted story, our main character is Sam, played by Jon Bernthal. Bernthal is generally used for his macho, slightly dangerous physicality – think of his brief appearance in Baby Driver, or on The Walking Dead, or his upcoming role in The Punisher.
Sweet Virginia uses that persona and plays with it. Sam used to be a highly physical man, but a rodeo fall has left him irreparably injured. In the movie he’s a gentle soul, a friend to everyone, and effectively a surrogate father to Maggie (Odessa Young), who works at his motel. A domestic violence incident occurs in one of the rooms, and as Sam marches over there to sort out the situation, our previous experience with Bernthal suggests that the abuser is about to get his ass kicked. Moments later, Sam has lost the fight (and painfully!) it’s an excellent subversion of the Bernthal persona, played with a vulnerable grace. It’d be nice to see him in more roles like this.
Sam’s polar opposite is Elwood, and whilst Bernthal may be playing against type, Elwood is firmly in Christopher Abbott‘s wheelhouse of damaged, mercurial men. Elwood is twitchy and intense; you never quite know what he’s going to do next. A tragic past is eluded to, but is then quickly revealed as a lie. The depths of violence that he’s capable of are quite horrifying. The film’s best, most unnerving scenes are those shared by Bernthal and Abbott.
The talented cast are aided by a superb screenplay from The China Brothers, a British duo with only one other film (the little seen Crawl), to their name. It’s an excellent script which allows a lot of room for character building. We’re introduced to Sam via a lovely conversation with Maggie. The scene is leisurely-paced and charmingly written: the exposition delivered so casually that by the end you not only know Sam, but just how badly the massacre has rocked the town.
Despite these slower scenes, director Jamie M. Dagg proves himself adept at tension-building. He’s aided by the score (by another pair of brothers, Will and Brooke Blair). They strike an urgent, industrial tone that sounds like foghorns, or sirens in slow motion. That unnerving score, combined with Dagg‘s fondness of slow, almost imperceptible zooms that make it seem like our characters are always being watched, creates an atmosphere that leaves you on edge. You know something’s coming.
There are only two problems that I had with Sweet Virginia, and the first is really more of a compliment.
It should have been longer. How often can you say that about a film? Sweet Virginia is brilliant, but it could have been even better at two hours, instead of its scant ninety minutes.
There’s just so much going on here, and each of the four leads are so compelling that you want to spend more time with them. Poots and DeWitt are particular victims of this limited duration; though each is gifted a pivotal scene, we never learn much about Bernie and Lila’s unhappy marriages, which in the latter’s case is what sets the whole chain of events in motion in the first place.
Criticising a film for its leanness seems wrong when so many other films are weighed down by over-indulgent runtimes. But with an extra half hour to play with, this already engaging character study could have been even richer.
The second problem is an actual problem, and that is the darkness that pervades every frame. Cinematographer Jessica Lee Gagné is going for a murky, underworld atmosphere and in some scenes this low lighting is effective. One of the movie’s stand-out set pieces involves a late-night car ride with Lila, when she realises she’s being followed. The gloom falls over everything and heightens her isolation; with the world so dark, she seems terrifyingly alone.
Yet, there are instances when the frame is so poorly lit, it is near-impossible to decipher what is going on. You’re left squinting at the screen, trying to work out where people are, and what the increasingly ominous music cues are signifying. These moments are frustrating, and some of the few instances where you are pushed away from the action, rather than drawn in. It’s a rare mistake in a movie that is otherwise consistently magnificent.
Sweet Virginia: In Conclusion
It isn’t often that you can say the worst thing about a film is that it’s too short, but it’s certainly true of Sweet Virginia. Dagg, The China Brothers, and this wonderful cast create such an engaging world that you just want more of it. Extra time with the two female leads would be a particular boon.
It’s a gripping, atmospheric movie, with stellar acting and a characterful script. With a lengthier runtime (and better lighting), it would be pretty near perfect.
Have you seen Sweet Virginia? What did you think? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below!
Sweet Virginia will be released in the US on November 17, 2017. For all international release dates, see here.
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