Premiered at Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year and released in cinemas and via streaming this November, Sweet Virginia is small-town underbelly at its most noirish as we focus on a small group of individuals tied by desperate lives and even more desperate goals.
A late-night triple murder in a roadside diner sparks the story off, with contract killer Elwood (Christopher Abbott) asking for the special from the manager before pumping him and his guests full of lead. Meanwhile, one-time rodeo champion Sam (Jon Bernthal) carries on an affair with one of the victims’ wives (Rosemarie DeWitt). He runs a motel (the ‘Sweet Virginia’ of the title in this Alaskan-set film), but the arrival of Elwood at his abode creates a connection and friendship that disguises the dark heart and soul the guest possesses.
Echoing the Coen Brothers’ classic Blood Simple – which was recently released in a brand new 4K transfer on Blu-ray – Sweet Virginia has all the classic elements of a modern-day thriller. Although it might not have the surprise and ingenuity of the Coen trademarks that continue to enthral to this day, it has just enough in its content to provide a diverting hour-and-a-half. Perhaps that is one of the downsides of the genre at present – the idea that new and upcoming filmmakers tend to focus on creating the atmosphere and style - without getting to the emotional heart.
The characters in Sweet Virginia are stock at times and the backstory and context of why the story is the way it is are not as expansive or explored as they should be. The style of the film is perhaps a little too dark (you can sense that people are going to wander into dark corners and drive down long semi-lit roads to avoid impending doom), but it neatly ticks the boxes of a noir-style genre piece. Still, the performances are competent and serve the story and arcs well.
The film’s key strength is in Jessica Lee Gagne’s cinematography, a very stylish pallet of greys and blacks. Her framing of the Alaskan world these characters inhabit perfectly serves Jamie M. Dagg’s vision. Gagne has much to be proud of with her efforts here. Benjamin and Paul China also show some promise here in their screenplay, which is a follow-up to 2011’s Crawl, which they produced and wrote, respectively.
With the advent of digital platforms and streaming, which is becoming a more viable option - and the increased influence of Amazon and Netflix against the traditional distribution and studio release ideals - it is nice that films like Sweet Virginia are getting an availability that would be unheard of in previous years when often films are lost amidst cluttered seasonal schedules. Whether it gives the film a financial foundation and success remains to be seen, but at least the film is out there getting a chance.
SWEET VIRGINIA / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: JAMIE M. DAGG / SCREENPLAY: BENJAMIN CHINA, PAUL CHINA / STARRING: JON BERNTHAL, CHRISTOPHER ABBOTT, IMOGEN POOTS, ROSEMARIE DEWITT / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW (SELECTED CINEMAS & VOD), JANUARY 15TH (HOME RELEASE)