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In the tense opening moments of Sweet Virginia, before all hell breaks loose in a backroom fusillade, somebody mentions a highway closure and an encroaching fire. That detail might at first suggest a nod to topical matters, but it soon becomes clear that this taut drama exists in a timeless noir territory, a world of free-floating dread and dashed hopes where mood supersedes specifics of time and place.
Even the movie’s switch of setting to Alaska, from the Appalachia of Benjamin and Paul China’s Black List screenplay, is immaterial. What director Jamie M. Dagg achieves with his slow burn of a second feature is a total immersion in end-of-the-line atmosphere, with four superb central performances bringing archetypal intrigue to life.
That quartet of figures are all lying, whether to themselves or everyone around them. Their various agendas entwine and clash, and the story tightens the screws relentlessly, building upon classic genre ingredients — infidelity, murder, a faded hero, a seemingly rootless hitman. The result is a dark diversion, not quite indelible but thoroughly absorbing as it travels through its topography of unease.
Much of the action is nocturnal, and all of it is captured with pulse-thumping intensity by cinematographer Jessica Lee Gagne (with British Columbia subbing for the 49th state), whether she’s tracking a jittery drive home on desolate streets or a soul-searching exchange of half-truths across a diner booth.
The narrative threads converge at the motel run by Sam Rossi (Jon Bernthal), a former rodeo star with a gentle bearing. Sam’s limp and small collection of framed mementos are the conflicting reminders of his heyday as a champion. With a few muttered words he alludes to a terrible loss; with his paternal interest in front-desk clerk Maggie (Odessa Young), he shows how he keeps going.
Sam lets go of his natural wariness when Elwood (Christopher Abbott), a guest at the motel, seeks out his company. Unbeknownst to Sam, the admiring stranger is the shooter responsible for the recent deaths of three locals. Unbeknownst to everyone in town, Sam has long been romantically involved with Bernadette (Rosemarie DeWitt), one of two women left widowed by the shooting. Both she and the other widow, Lila (Imogen Poots), feel more liberated than bereft. But even with troubled marriages behind them, brutal shocks await them both.
Like many of the characters Abbott has played, Elwood is a coiled explosion ready to go off — or rather, in this case, one that detonates repeatedly. Hired to kill one man but finding his plan complicated by unexpected circumstances, he opted instead for a collateral-damage scenario. Now, forced to bide his time in the foggy mountain-ringed town while he waits for payment, he’s antsy for action, and his volatile energy seeps into the lives of almost everyone around him. But gradually he’s affected by them, too.
Bernthal ingrains the weight of Sam’s past in his every considerate word and gesture, and especially in his hesitancy with Bernadette now that she’s ready to take their relationship out of the shadows. Playing against Sam’s emotional withdrawal, DeWitt, a performer who never disappoints, is a source of piercing light. When Bernadette admits that she hasn’t cried over her husband’s death, she’s not asking to be forgiven. And when Sam chooses to skedaddle from her bed one morning rather than stay for breakfast, her response, beautifully performed and filmed, is the film’s most involving moment.
A scene between two other characters, on a bridge over a waterfall, is the feature’s most striking: a vision of lives caught between doom and transcendence. Dagg’s genre arsenal is impeccable, but his interest in character is at least as strong. Amid the tangles of destruction and gloom, he convincingly creates a killer-for-hire who seeks human connection, and honest people who have given up on the idea of an honest course of action. “We got weighed down by convenience, I guess,” Bernadette says of her loveless marriage. Though the effects of Sweet Virginia may not last long or go particularly deep, it’s grounded in such tough truths, expressed in the everyday language of evasion and regret.
Production companies: XYZ Films, Automatik, Oddfellows Pictures
Distributor: IFC Films
Cast: Jon Bernthal, Christopher Abbott, Imogen Poots, Rosemarie DeWitt, Odessa Young, Jonathan Tucker, Joseph Lyle Taylor, Garry Chalk, Jared Abrahamson, Gabrielle Rose
Director: Jamie M. Dagg
Screenwriters: The China Brothers
Producers: Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, Chris Ferguson, Fernando Loureiro, Roberto Vasconcellos
Executive producers: Rian Cahill, Jesse Savath, Aram Tertzakian, Nate Bolotin
Director of photography: Jessica Lee Gagne
Production designer: Danny Vermette
Costume designer: Mia Fiddis
Editor: Duff Smith
Composers: Will Blair, Brooke Blair
Casting directors: Melissa Kostenbauder, Kate Caldwell
Rated R, 93 minutes