From fledgling feature film director Jamie M. Dagg, and written by the UK’s Benjamin and Paul China, comes Sweet Virginia, an edge-of-your-seat thriller that will leave you wanting more.
Jon Bernthal (The Walking Dead, The Punisher) plays Sam, a quiet, simple man running a motel in Alaska. Sam’s easy life is upended when odd loner Elwood (Christopher Abbott) arrives in town, ripping the community apart with bloody violence. As Elwood wanders around, unsuspected, he and Sam start to bond, but how long will this friendship last? Co-starring Imogen Poots (Frank & Lola) as Lila and Rosemarie DeWitt (Your Sister’s Sister) as Bernadette, Sweet Virginia sees the foursome’s wires cross, over and over, into a tangled mess of secrets and lies.
Set in an Alaskan valley, encircled by mountains, cut off from the wider world, Dagg uses this sense of isolation to really spook the townspeople and his audience. We get the sense that this is somewhere everybody knows everybody else and their business, so when Elwood arrives on the scene, ripples disrupt the surface. His devastating act of violence shocks Sam, Lila and Bernadette, along with their neighbours, and yet he’s not the prime suspect. Who knows why not, but allowing him to live as a free man a little longer gives us a chance to discover who he is when he hasn’t got a gun in his hand (not so different, apparently).
Abbott, maybe best known for playing sensitive Charlie in early seasons of HBO’s Girls, is disarming to watch as calculated Elwood. His rigid movements, unchanging facial expressions, and lack of dialogue all give him an air of oddness, unpredictability – what will he do or say next? This is partnered with Bernthal’s Sam, similarly a man with little to say or reveal, but with a troubled past that’s hinted at throughout the narrative.
That might be Sweet Virginia‘s biggest disappointment – each character is interesting in their own right, but we barely scrape the surface of who they are, where they’ve come from, how they’ve come together. Sam’s lack of family is hinted at, so slightly it might as well be left out of the plot, while his past as a rodeo champion is used as a convenient ‘in’ for Elwood to start up conversation with him. It’s the same with Elwood, who blurts out a convoluted story about this jailbird father (is it true?), hoping to with bond with Sam over coffee and eggs. Again, Bernadette and Lila’s respective loveless marriages are glimpsed at, used as narrative devices to move the story forward, when there could be so much more to tell to add to the story.
However, what Sweet Virginia lacks in character development, it excels in tension, racking it up with its use of tight camera angles, diegetic sound, and silence. Stand out scenes include Lila being followed whilst driving (the camera switching between close-ups on her face and then the reverse, a shot of headlights in her rear-view mirror), and Bernadette at home alone, investigating a bump in the night.
Despite its underdeveloped characters and slightly anticlimactic ending, Sweet Virginia is a suspense-filled thriller that ticks the genre’s boxes.