April 2, 2018 Sweet Virginia (Movie Review)
When tragedy strikes small towns, everyone is involved. Those kind of communities are closely knit by nature, but when there is calamity, the binding strings are drawn that much tighter. The small population holds each other up while heartache and confusion abound, but eventually the evil-doer is cast out into the light, by hook or by crook, and is dealt with. Such is the case in Jamie M. Dagg’s (River 2015, Sunday 2008) Sweet Virginia.
A joint venture between Automatik Entertainment, XYZ Films, Oddfellows Entertainment, and Exhibit Productions, Sweet Virginia was released on April 21, 2017 at the Tribeca Film Festival. Also hitting select theaters in November of 2017 thanks to IFC Films, it will now be released widely on Blu-ray and DVD on Tuesday, April 3rd, 2018 thanks to Shout! Factory.
Our protagonist, for better or worse, is Sam Rossi (Jon Bernthal: The Walking Dead series, The Punisher Series), a retired rodeo star who has given up his saddle for a milder life as the owner of a motel in southern Alaska. It is the kind of area where not much happens, so when the town – and furthermore, Sam’s immediate friend group – are shaken up by a triple homicide at the hands of the enigmatically unhinged Elwood (Christopher Abbott: A Most Violent Year 2014, It Comes At Night 2017), everyone involved gets a little more desperate and a little more afraid. In time, it is revealed that one of the victims’ wives, Lila (Imogen Poots: 28 Weeks Later 2007, Green Room 2015), hired Elwood to kill her husband, but things went south by two extra bodies.
To make matters worse, the killer is right under everyone’s nose. Elwood is the friendly, weird guy staying at Sam’s motel and eventually they even strike up a friendship. The pair have a downright Faustian dinner at a local diner, which is ironic because, though Sam is more Mephistophelean in appearance, it is Elwood who is the bonafide demon of a human being. He robs, beats, intimidates, and murders throughout the entire film. He is eventually undone when he goes too far with Sam’s secret moll, the newly-widowed Bernadette (Rosemarie DeWitt: Rachael Getting Married 2008, United States of Tara series). There is not much comedic relief to be had. Everyone in Sweet Virginia is hurt or hurting and at the end, it feels just as grim as it did the entire time.
Simply put, Sweet Virginia‘s focus got confused and started following the wrong character. Bernthal, though ever a delight to watch, plays a character who is fully fleshed out for no apparent reason. He is a former rodeo champ from Virginia, now living in Alaska with the early signs of Parkinson’s knocking on his door like persistent Jehovah’s Witnesses, but none of that ties into any of the action of the film. Poots’ character, Lila, is the linchpin of the entire film and is only present for a handful of minutes. Her character is going through a compelling amount of calamity, but the camera follows Bernthal’s gentle motelier through the minutia of his life for some reason instead. The original script put him in the American South and gave him a more cogent role, but somewhere in rewrite hell, he found himself in Alaska just sort of getting in the way.
However nonsensical the focus is, the performances within the film are quite astonishing. Bernthal’s ability to show believable vulnerability and softness while still looking like he could hold his own in a fist fight against a Kodiak bear is a testament to his dramatic range. The uncanny gleam he gets in his eyes when he is acting hurt or afraid is devastating, humanizing, and makes him infinitely likeable.
Not to be outdone, Abbott’s ‘Elwood’ is a perfect portrayal of someone suffering from Intermittent Explosive Disorder along with a litany of other mental illnesses. He is quite believable as a person who would do anything at a moment’s notice with no concern about how it will affect anyone around him. Poots’ character ‘Lila’ is calm and soft on the outside, but tortured, guilty, and angry on the inside like a lava cake and Elwood is the ornery, petulant child prodding and poking her with a fork.
All told, there have certainly been worse films made and even though the writing was imbalanced, the tremendous performances and many of the action scenes were redemptive enough for CrypticRock to award Sweet Virginia 3 out of 5 stars.