by Hogan Short
Sweet Virginia, in many ways, is a film that has been made many times before. It is a noir drama that hangs the presence of it’s opening crime over the heads of it’s characters, forcing these ordinary people into dangerous and unexpected circumstances. The film shows us a special kind of psychopathic hitman dealing with his own issues while portraying its main characters as flawed and complex individuals. Sweet Virginia is skillfully set in a remote Alaskan town allowing for a unique and pivotal tone to be struck, personifying the location. These are all familiar plot devices that a genre film of this type often relies on. Sweet Virginia, since its premiere at the Tribecca film festival, has had the daunting reputation of being consistently compared to the early work of the prestigious directing duo, the Coen Brother’s. Fortunately for Director Jamie M. Dagg, he has crafted a film with all of these familiar tropes done with such a confident vision that the comparisons are not unwarranted. The story is familiar, but with multidimensional characters told both subtly and powerfully, this recognizable genre film is elevated to live amongst other fantastic, small town crime noir films like Blood Simple and Out of the Furnace.
Sweet Virginia opens with the crime of a triple homicide, a cold and intense man killing three men in a diner after a heated exchange. Without giving any of the plot away, the hired murder didn’t go down exactly as planned. This crime then sends ripples through the community and continues to do so when the hitman is seeking the money he is owed. The film’s murderous psychopath Elwood is expertly played by Christopher Abott, who adds another stunning performance to his resume after malaise roles in both the suburb Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) and It Comes at Night (2017). We so often see these killers as they are murdering or manipulating but we rarely see them behind the scenes. We rarely see them as they eat their breakfasts or watch television from behind the curtains in their crummy motel room as they await their next move. It is hard not to compare Elwood to the legendary film villain Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men. They are two psychopaths with the same motivation and murdering anyone who gets in their way. Anton Chigurh is loveless, calculating, smart, calm, and lives by a code with some personal sense of honour that could only make sense to him. We see that same insight into Elwood’s mind but with a chaotic disregard for any type of code. He is the exact opposite of Anton Chigurh as he seems self hating but yearning for love. We see him have detached sex with a prostitute and then call his Mother. We see him shoot his own reflection whether by accident or on purpose. Abbott’s decisions to play Elwood with animalistic twitches, grunts and heavy breathing are what give this unhinged lunatic a defining place among cinema’s great killers.
The impeccable ensemble cast in Sweet Virginia is the engine that powers these interesting characters. They are archetypal characters until one small thing changes and they react and change, evolving to the story. Jon Bernthal plays a tough but sweet motel owner with an unfulfilled past that seems to haunt him. Bernthal always seems to be cast as these hardened, intimidating, and intense types (The Punisher, Sicario, Wind River) and the same has been done here. He always makes each of his roles sympathetic and unique from the last, giving them subtle qualities that make them so refreshingly human. Imogen Poots (Green Room) plays a terrified woman afraid of the hitman who also has lost her husband in the murder. Poots is a fragile and injured animal looking in every direction for any threat. The anticipation of someone finding her leaves us restless for it because we know it is coming and how will this fragile girl react when cornered. Rosemarie Dewitt (Cinderella Man) rounds out the cast as a woman who has been cheating on her husband who has now been killed. We watch her as she must reconcile the grief of losing her husband and the guilt she has over the affair she continues to have. Each character in this film has their issues and when they are put into this extraordinary situation we see them react to it, and react realistically. The story weaves between and through each character so naturally until we are begging for it to be resolved and end somewhere until it finally does and beautifully so.
Sweet Virginia’s shots of the cold Alaskan fog sitting overtop of the mountains shows us the inescapability of the town. We see how far away freedom can be and we are surrounded by it just like these characters. The haunting score while we watch the mountains only serves as a reminder of this fact for the entire film. The film’s feeling of dread can then be said every time we are placed in a car with some unknown person following behind. When the film delicately places themes of PTSD and unfulfilled potential we again are emotionally stuck there, at the bottom of the mountains. Sweet Virginia is a film that should be a breakout crime drama like last years Hell or High Water. It might be too moody and dark for some but if you love a cold, strong, gritty cup of coffee while you yearn over forgotten promises then this is for you.VIFF