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May 19, 2018

Sweet Virginia

by Franz Patrick

Sweet Virginia (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

Curious dramatic-thriller “Sweet Virginia” is so sparse in its look and content that the viewer is compelled almost immediately to consider not only where it is heading but also what the point of it is, if any. Is it a genre exercise? A character study? One of those thrillers that pivots halfway through when we least expect it? One thing is certain: It is the story of two damaged men, Sam (Jon Bernthal) and Elwood (Christopher Abbott), a former rodeo champion turned motel manager and a sociopathic killer, respectively, who must meet simply because destiny requires that they do. I found it poetic in its simplicity.

The casting choice is inspired because one looks at the physicality of its lead actors and one might assume that Barnthal ought to play the murderer-for-hire and Abbott the motel manager. Given the former’s body frame is quite large and muscular, that he commands a domineering presence, it feels appropriate—it fits—that he portrays the person who commits a triple homicide in the opening scene. On the other hand, Abbott’s physique, by comparison, is smaller, his face angelic at times depending on the lighting. The default state of those eyes communicates a certain loneliness, like that of a bird yearning to be free of its wounded wings. By playing upon the less expected, our curiosities are piqued. Note how both performers play their characters with quiet desperation. It is an intelligent choice because without this similarity, the drama would not have been as potent.

One might critique the work for simply being composed of one buildup after another. While I do not disagree, in my eyes, it is not a shortcoming but a fresh choice to tell a story. The rising action is done well: it is suspenseful, always intriguing, and nearly every scene makes a statement about how complex humans are… even if they happen to be monsters. I admired the camera’s willingness to keep still, particularly when two people are facing each other, both in profile relative to the viewer. We may see only half of their faces, it is likely they have something to hide, but their body language communicates everything.

The look of the picture is foreboding because nearly all colors have been sucked out of their vibrant energy, the element that makes them stand out. It encapsulates the lifestyles of these characters and the small Alaskan town they live in—the inhabitants know that the ennui of the every day is draining the life of them but most of them either do not have the means to make a change or have surrendered to the way life has been for generations. I enjoyed that the folks in the background look like regular people; as they make their way to the foreground from time to time, they may not say anything but their accessible presence made me curious about their stories.

Directed by Jamie M. Dagg, “Sweet Virginia” is not for those who cannot tolerate deliberately slow pacing. Although the premise promises violence, and once in a while we come across it, it is not so much about violence but rather why people result to violence and the aftermath of it. Although not the most exciting thriller, it is full of suspense. There is a difference and this film wields an understanding of it.


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