Directed by: Jamie M. Dagg
Screenplay by: Benjamin China, Paul China
Starring: Jon Bernthal, Christopher Abbott, Imogen Poots, Rosemarie DeWitt
Review by: Alex Sala
Sometimes things happen for a reason. Bad things, good things. In Sweet Virginia a bad thing happens in a small town which forever changes the course of four lives. The film opens on a violent murder – a hit that took more lives than was needed – with the execution perpetrated by the disturbed but calculating Elwood (Christopher Abbot). As the small town reels from the shocking murders of three men, two friends and two newly-minted widows, Lila (Imogen Poots) and Bernadette (Rosemarie DeWitt), try to make sense of the tragedy.
Where’s Jon Bernthal in all this, you might ask? Just trying to live a quiet life as Sam, an ex-rodeo champ turned motel manager coping with debilitating injuries and a mysteriously absent family by waking, baking, and looking after the Sweet Virginia motel – the exact place where the new local killer Elwood resides.
Sometimes things happen for a reason.
The strength of Sweet Virginia is in its simple set-up. The initial murder is the inciting action that forces Lila, Elwood, Sam and Bernadette to confront what each of them was hiding. Whether it’s a murder, or an affair, all the character interactions are put under a pressure cooker. The dramatic irony in these scenes heightens the mundane – like Lila and Bernadette having a movie night or Elwood and Sam having a late night snack. The audience is the only one privy to all their secrets and everything that isn’t said – making friendly conversations feel like sparks around a powder keg.
And Elwood, as the living embodiment of violence and wrath shows what happens when the powder keg goes off. Frustrated with Lila’s avoidance, Elwood ruthlessly provokes and assaults two men outside a phone booth. Imogen Poots gives a standout performance in this scene due to the depth of panic and fear she’s able to reach as Lila comes face to face with what she fears is imminent death.
But among the violence and anxiety the audience is able to find a bit of relief when Sam and Bernadette have their romantic rendezvous. It’s here that the film allows you feel some tension dissipate, as it’s clear that their illicit affair now has a chance to be a legitimate relationship in light of Bernadette’s dead husband. And as grim as that is there’s a comfort in seeing two people who care deeply about each other get a chance to be together.
Sometimes things happen for a reason.
When all secrets get revealed another job goes bad. Elwood gets word from Lila that his money can be got from Bernadette and the wealth her husband left behind. So he breaks in but doesn’t escape unscathed. Elwood attempts to leave the Sweet Virginia but Sam knows about the break-in at Bernadette’s and heard the robber was injured in the same way Elwood appears to be. It’s then both men who were at one point building a friendship must face each other’s truth. That Elwood is a killer, and Sam is in no shape to be a hero.
The fascinating narrative choice to disable Jon Bernthal’s usual physical strength in this film serves not only to let Bernthal lean more on his emotional range but also make any danger hurled at Sam that much more distressing. There’s no way to tell if Sam can survive any run in with violence but it’s the strong emotional relationship the audience has seen through his interactions with Lila, Bernadette, and even Elwood that makes the audience root for and want to see Sam survive. Does he? I’ll let this be the one thing I don’t spoil for you.
Watch It! Sweet Virginia leverages quiet atmospheric moments against brutal violence to create a taught rural noir with a tender examination about grief, coping and hope at the center. With surprising and talented performances by Imogen Poots, Christopher Abbot and Jon Bernthal – Sweet Virginia offers not only a tight thriller but a story consequences – good, bad, and moving beyond the cataclysms in our lives when they pass.