Drama featured

'Sweet Virginia' Film Review: An effective and unrelenting noir thriller

December 1, 2017Ferdosa Abdi

A slow burn noir set in a sleepy Alaskan town that finds itself plagued by an outburst of violence, Sweet Virginia is a suspenseful, atmospheric drama that features brilliant performances from its two leads, Christopher Abbott and Jon Bernthal.

The film begins with a trio of men who gather for a late-night game after hours at a diner. A mysterious young man (Abbott) enters. After a brief interaction with the awkward, young stranger, the men convince him to leave. A few moments later, however, the stranger returns and shoots all three of them dead. The shocking and sudden act of violence rattles the victims' community, but what is even more unsettling is that the residents are completely unaware that the killer walks among them.

Abbott is mesmerizing as the film's elusive antagonist, whom we later learn is named Elwood. He is wholly unsympathetic, yet the actor's sweet and innocent demeanor adds a layer of naivety to the troubled killer. His interactions with Sam (Bernthal) are the crux of the narrative, as we see Elwood become infatuated with Sam, in the sense that he admires and perhaps wishes to be him. A simple man with his own troubled past, Sam radiates a sense of confidence and kindness that is missing in Elwood. And as the two men become trapped in a tense game of cat-and-mouse, their lives become increasingly connected.

However, Elwood is not the only dark force in the movie, for it is revealed that someone within this tight-knit community is responsible for bringing him into their midst. Once the story takes that turn, we really get a sense of how this small town has become a haven for those who are disenfranchised, marginalized and pushed to the edge. Suffice to say, moral complexities abound.

On top of that, director Jamie M. Dagg and his cinematographer, Jessica Lee Gagné, make the film's setting feel very familiar for viewers who enjoy the classic noir and Western genres. Although set in modern day, this drama could easily be supplanted to the Old West, where our lone gunman and damaged hero collide in an epic gunfight.

Simple but effective, the premise alone could easily be mistaken for a Coen Brothers story. But while the Coens are no strangers to small town intrigue, Sweet Virginia is no Coen Brothers knockoff. Both brothers Benjamin and Paul China's script and Dagg's directing focus on the darkness, and on the seedy underbelly of these communities. And there is no humor to be found in that; just raw and frighteningly honest truth.

Dagg deserves enormous credit for pacing and staging, as he sets his scenes in such a manner as to maximize not only the suspense of the moment, but also the fear that grips the hearts of some of our characters. As a result, Sweet Virginia does not relent. It will leave you in constant state of tension, as you anticipate what will happen next.

Sweet Virginia releases December 1st, 2017 from Elevation Pictures. The film has an MPAA rating of R for violence, some strong sexuality, language, and drug use. Its runtime is 1 hr. 33 min.

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