Sweet Virginia (2017)

  • Time: 105 min
  • Genre: Drama | Thriller
  • Director: Jamie M. Dagg
  • Cast: Jon Bernthal, Imogen Poots, Christopher Abbott


A former rodeo star, with a small time life, unknowingly starts a rapport with a young man who is responsible for the violence that has suddenly gripped his small town. Every character from his loved ones to his business patrons, plays a part in the unravelling of this community. Our aged hero must face his relationships of past and present to come up against this unpredictable predator.

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  • Jon Bernthal has been knocking around for a few years, delivering solid performances both on the small (The Walking Dead) and big screens (Fury, Sicario, The Accountant, and earlier this year in Wind River), and it’s particularly heartening that this tremendously talented actor is finally gaining prominence, particularly for his role as Frank Castle, first seen in the second season of Marvel’s Daredevil and now in his own series, Marvel’s The Punisher. Bernthal has Brando’s mix of animalism and tenderness in his bloodstream and he is expert at deploying both the intensity and sensitivity each moment requires.

    In the cracking neo-noir Sweet Virginia, Bernthal stars as Sam Rossi, an ex-rodeo star now working as a motel manager in Alaska. Within the first few minutes of his appearance, a wealth of information is revealed: he obviously lives alone, though a framed photograph on his night stand reveals a wife and daughter; he uses marijuana and takes pills for the pain he must feel from the limp in his leg and the shaking of his hand. He demonstrates a paternal feeling for Maggie (Odessa Young), the teenager who works at the motel’s front desk. Soft-spoken and averse to confrontation, Sam is very much in line with the genre’s gallery of damaged drifters who soon find themselves entrapped in a trouble often not of their own making.

    Sam has been having an affair with Bernadette (Rosemarie DeWitt), whose husband was recently shot dead by a mysterious drifter named Elwood (Christopher Abbott). The shooting, which opens the film, is a tense affair, somehow both inevitable and surprising under the highly assured direction of Jamie M. Dagg in only his sophomore outing. Bernadette is not the only one left widowed by the incident – there’s Lila (Imogen Poots), who turns out to have been the one who hired Elwood, though she foresaw neither the additional victims nor the bracing fact that her husband was bankrupt. The latter is especially concerning as she was counting on her husband’s money to pay Elwood. Poots conveys Lila’s rising sense of dread so palpably during her close-up that one’s blood runs cold at what fate might await her at Elwood’s hands.

    Meanwhile the ticking time bomb that is Elwood bides his time at the motel, even befriending the taciturn Sam. There’s no doubt that all four figures will converge and that the result will be bloody and fatal, but what’s remarkable about both the China Brothers’ screenplay and Dagg’s execution is the attention to the characters themselves. In fact, there are numerous times when Sweet Virginia resembles a potent character study that also happens to be an immaculately rendered noir. The screenplay is concise but its methodical parsing of details is brilliant and impactful, and the manner in which the film’s lead quartet extricates endless depths of nuance and emotional layers is to be applauded. This is a film where a woman asking her lover to stay the night is as impactful as a gentle man forced to resort to violence, where dread is to be had in realising that someone may be following you but also in allowing yourself to believe in hope, where dying of a broken heart is just as piercing as dying from a bullet.

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