Director: Jamie M. Dagg
Cast: Jon Bernthal, Christopher Abbott, Rosemarie DeWitt, Imogen Poots, Odessa Young
MPAA Rating: (for violence, some strong sexuality, language, and drug use)
Running Time: 1:33
Release Date: 11/17/17 (limited)
Review by Mark Dujsik | November 16, 2017
There are only two characters who know what's really happening in Sweet Virginia. Everyone else is simply caught up in the scheming and violence, and they don't even realize it until, perhaps, it is too late to do anything about it. It's arguable that even the two characters who do know what's happening are in the dark to some degree: one in not knowing what she signed up for and the other in regards to his mental state.
It's a story of murder and its aftermath, written by Paul and Benjamin China—credited as "the China Brothers"—as a study of guilt and the lack thereof. The guilt isn't simply on account of the three murders that open the movie, although it certainly sets that feeling in motion for the characters who are able to feel it. Strangely enough, the characters who do experience that feeling have nothing to do with the murders, and the characters who are directly responsible for the senseless triple homicide seem incapable of that emotion.
One supposes this is saying something about human nature, and in a broad sense, it certainly does. The screenplay, though, is more involved in the characters who do feel guilty, meaning that they're only indirectly linked to the murder story. This makes the killings and the subplot surrounding them almost irrelevant. It seems that way, at least, since the China Brothers have something more subdued in mind than the twists and machinations of the noir-style plot that sets the story in motion and, ultimately, takes the foreground during the climax.
The murders are at the front of the movie, as a mysterious stranger named Elwood (Christopher Abbott) arrives at a local bar after hours. One of the three locals playing poker there kicks him out of the place. Elwood returns with a pistol, shoots all them, reloads his gun, takes the money from the register, and finishes the job at close range.
Sam (Jon Bernthal), a former bull-rider and the current owner of a local motel, attends a wake held by a widow of one of the victims. Bernadette (Rosemarie DeWitt), the widow, has been having an affair with Sam. She wants their relationship to become sturdier now, but he still has qualms about it, considering how it would look.
These two might seem like the guiltless but responsible-for-murder characters at first, but almost immediately after, we learn that Lila (Imogen Poots), another widow of the one of the victims, had hired Elwood to kill her philandering husband. There's no attempt at misdirection here. Everything is clear-cut by the end of the first act. Lila owes Elwood money. Elwood threatens to kill her if she doesn't pay. Everything should end there, except that, in addition to his marital commitment, Lila's husband was lying about his finances. Now, Lila has no way of paying Elwood.
This story turns out to be fairly meaningless in the context of the rest of the movie, which primarily follows Sam and, to a lesser extent, Bernadette, as they grapple with the uncertainty of finding themselves in a convenient place—although at the cost of three lives. It's mostly about Sam, a man who lost his own wife, child, and career some time ago—left with a struggling motel he inherited from his brother. He fell a few too many times while bull-riding, which gave him a noticeable limp and the early signs of brain damage. As Sam, Bernthal, who quickly has become one of our sturdier and more versatile actors (with only a few really noticing), is a solid but sad center for this story—a man filled with regret and a resolute sense of being stuck in the rut life has given to him.
The other key story line here is how Elwood tries to connect with Sam, who clearly wants nothing to do with the stranger who's staying at the motel—even without knowing that he's a sociopathic murderer. We get to see Elwood in his element, as he picks fights with random people and talks violent thoughts to himself, although it seems a little redundant after the movie's opening scene. It only becomes more so, and Abbott's performance is as monotonous as the character.
While it may sound as if there's little that works here, it's quite the opposite. Each piece works on its own to a certain degree. The complications of the murder-for-hire plot unfold with an ironic sense of inevitability. The relationship between Sam and Bernadette is complex and provides a solid sense of both of these characters, who want each other but cannot see a way to fulfill that desire, even with and because of the removal of the major obstacle in their way. The climax, involving a robbery, is tense, not only because we know what Elwood is capable of but also because of who is and isn't present at the time.
The connections between all of these, though, feel a bit too circumstantial. The key, one supposes, is merging them through the interactions between Sam and Elwood, but nothing comes of that connection, except in terms of the plot. In a way, Sweet Virginia feels like a well-plotted piece of machinery. We can appreciate its motions, but we're left unclear as to its purpose.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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