With TV currently in it’s Golden Age, a lot of genres have proven to work better with a long-form series rather than a one-off entry; case in point, crime thriller with the likes of Fargo and Twin Peaks making the most of their extended run-time. I bring this up because while it’s very easy to tell when a movie needs to be cut shorter, new Alaskan thriller Sweet Virginia is one of those rare films that could benefit from being longer.
The story is the film’s weakest element, it opens with three friends, Tom, Lloyd and Mitchell, playing poker in Lloyd’s bar when they are all shot and killed by Elwood (Christopher Abbott), a contract killer hired by Mitchell’s wife Lila (Imogen Poots). While waiting for Lila to get the insurance money to pay him, Elwood finds himself at the Sweet Virginia, a motel joint owned by former rodeo champ Sam (Jon Bernthal) and the two men start an uneasy friendship while Elwood is in town. All the while, Sam contemplates whether or not to continue his affair with Tom’s widow Bernadette (Rosemarie DeWitt) now that her husband is dead.
When it appears that Lila can’t get the money, Elwood is forced to take drastic measures to get his payment, however their plan takes them dangerously close to Sam and forcing him into a fight he wants no part of. As sad as I am to say it, that’s actually a fair bit of the plot I’ve revealed and it’s nothing particularly special, hired killer comes to town, can’t get paid, goes looking for money elsewhere, we’ve seen this story before and the film has very little new to offer on it. Where it manages to deliver something interesting is through Sam and his relationship to the people around him, particularly Bernadette because their affair started a good time before Tom’s death. But they still find comfort in one another even though they argue over whether or not to come clean with their relationship.
The film’s issue is that there actually feels like there needs to be a bigger story here. Lila’s reasoning for killing her husband are way too easy and in another film I would’ve assumed it was a lie, but we never get anything else to explain why she hired Elwood. Sam has a surrogate father/daughter relationship with Maggie, the receptionist at the motel, born out of his own daughter’s passing and Maggie’s father’s absence, but we don’t ever find out what happened to either of them, Nor do we get much more on Sam and Maggie’s relationship than a couple scenes despite the film making a point to bring it up. It’s moments like that, little world building scenes that are only hinted at, but never given enough time to develop properly that feels like the film is making itself much smaller than it actually is. The Elwood story-line takes up the majority of the run-time and even that feels like it could be extended further. Overall, it just feels like the film forewent its own world-building in favor of a good, but all-too familiar story-line.
Characters definitely helped the film, particularly Bernthal and Abbott. Jon Bernthal made a name for himself with unhinged characters like Shane and Frank Castle, but Sam is a move away from that style. Sam is a very passive character, he walks with a limp, he suffers from muscle tremors, and on the whole he tries to avoid conflict as much as possible. However, this is almost always seen as a detriment because even easy conversations he tries not to involve himself with. It’s a strong role for Bernthal because it throws him against type and allows him to portray a weak character without making Sam pitiful. He finds a good balance which allows his turn in the final act to feel like a genuine character move rather than a sudden switch.
His counterpart Elwood gives the film a very interesting villain, right from his first scene it’s clear that there’s something not quite right with Elwood. Elwood is different to most contract killer types because while the cliché is to have someone calm and collected. Elwood’s much more threatening and unpredictable persona makes for a better villain, especially with how easily he can mask himself in the right company and tell outright lies about himself, and his past that always leave you wondering just how much of what he says you can trust.
The supporting cast do their best to help build up the film but as already talked about, there’s not enough for them to actually do outside of the main plot. Poots is good as the desperate Lila, making plans without checking if she can pull them off then trying to improvise her way out of her own mess, but she disappears for most of the final act so she never really comes into play. DeWitt has the most to do as Bernadette with her affair with Sam being a constant source of light in an otherwise dark picture. With her husband dead, Bernadette is looking to finally move her and Sam into official territory and to hell with what anyone says. She does love him, but Sam’s refusal to admit the same is hurting her more than she wants to admit. It might not sound like much, but her inclusion in the film is welcome, particularly during a home invasion which puts her right in the thick of it.
Director Jamie Dagg on only his second feature shows a lot of potential, the Alaskan setting gives off a very small-town, almost old-west style of film-making with lots of silent corners and thick trees for menace to hide in. One of the things that really set this film apart was its use of lighting, a lot of the film takes place at night with only shadows and figments to light the scene, but Dagg uses them to his advantage, never fully revealing anything until he’s ready to let your imagination fill in the blanks up until then. It’s a very easy but very effective tool when combined with moments of absolute silence, allows Dagg to ramp up the tension, the aforementioned home invasion scene is the film’s highlight. Dagg utilizes the pitch-black tension to its best outcome while an earlier scene where Lila may or may not be followed in her car has all the markings of a classic paranoia scene trying to figure out what’s actually happening.
Sweet Virginia has a lot going for it and could stand as a fine new entry to the thriller genre, it’s well-acted with Bernthal and Abbott making a great pairing of growing enemies. It’s also exceedingly well-made with Dagg already showing an understanding of how to use shadows and tension to thrill the audience. It’s just the story that drags it down, not even that it’s too familiar for its own good, but because it shows so much more potential and never lives up to itself. With some tidying up and a better emphasis on the town, this could’ve made for a great 6-8 hour mini-series. But as it stands, it’s a good, but flawed 100 minute movie.
I am giving Sweet Virginia a 3 and ½ out of 5 hairpieces