Sweet Virginia isn’t so much sweet as it is deadly serious as the film’s two lead actors – a gritty Christopher Abbott and Jon Bernthal – fully tap into. Which is what makes the whole thing so damn fun.
These macho men get to play two troubled dudes whose lives intertwine when a murder leaves a messy trail behind. Bernthal stars as Sam, a former rodeo champion who controls his shaking hand and normal life while dating Bernadette (Rosemarie Dewitt) and managing a motel. His life changes when he rents a room to Elwood (Abbott), a young man whose violent introduction in the film’s opening scene leaves us wondering what sort of danger he won’t put himself in. The film is a moody piece of pulp thriller action and fun to squirm in your seat through. Audiences seeking out this dark and gritty filmmaking will likely get their fix of tense action.
It’s a subdued slugfest between Bernthal, who will soon come to be best recognized in his starring role as the Marvel Comics vigilante in Netflix’s “The Punisher” and Abbott, best known as the actor who walked away from the hit HBO series “Girls” to pursue more dramatic art-fare like James White, which showed his Brando-reaching ambitions. When these two share the screen, which is the film’s biggest draw and likely the best part, it feels both intense, like panthers circling each other waiting for the other’s guard to slip so they can attack, and also a bit wooden, as if their performances keep bumping into each others’. What might better distinguish their relationship is if Bernthal as Sam played up his former stuntman struggling to live a normal life to counter Abbot’s Elwood, who could have also turned the dial up a bit to play a more unpredictable live-wire character.
Come for the pulpy thriller that you know you’re going to get, stay for the unexpected pairing of powerhouse performances.
Written by Benjamin and Paul China, the film is tight but there’s not a lot inherently happening that makes it deep besides these actors tussling it up a bit. The last bit of life force not drained by Abbott and Bernthal goes to the combined efforts of Rosemarie Dewitt and Imogen Poots, who both shine in these dark worlds. You won’t see them holster any guns or command any scenes, as their passive characters both defer to Sam and Elwood respectively.
In only his second feature film, Jamie M. Dagg gets the tone down right – it feels so dense and full of tension with what little he’s really doing here. Dagg proves he knows how to utilize production restraints to what is an essential element of the genre with, more often than not, a micro-budget. This includes a nondescript location in the middle of nowhere, a handful of characters (seriously, where is everyone else in this town?), and a whole lot of silence. But these elements are handled so well that it makes watching from start to finish a fine time. In Sweet Virginia, come for the pulpy thriller that you know you’re going to get, but stay for the unexpected pairing of powerhouse performances.
93 min. ‘Sweet Virginia’ is rated R for violence, some strong sexuality, language, and drug use. In theaters today.