Sweet Virginia


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Sweet Virginia
"Sweet Virginia is a simple story told very, very well." | Photo: Jessica Gagne

A man walks into a bar. You might be waiting for the punchline. It's a hot night; we can see it on the characters' skin, even though this is Alaska, not the Virginia of the title. The bar has already closed. In the shadows at the back, three men are playing cards. They tell the stranger that the bar is closed. He shoots them all dead.

This is the kind of small town where mass shootings just don't happen. Everyone knows everyone, though they guard their secrets jealously. An act like this is shocking. It rips through the fabric of the community, and director Jamie M Dagg makes the audience share the locals' sense of disorientation. Even Lila (Imogen Poots), the woman who ordered the hit, is shocked - she never anticipated collateral damage. We meet her just a couple of scenes later, as she promises hitman Elwood (Christopher Abbott) that she'll be able to pay him as soon as the money comes through from her husband's insurance policy. Of course, things don't go for plan. Everything spirals downwards.

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A languorously slow film that drips like the golden honey in the Stones song, Sweet Virginia is a simple story told very, very well. To say that it recalls the early work of the Coen brothers or the more lyrical films of David Lynch is not to praise it too highly. The sense of doom embodied within it is as heavy as the heat. The images we see are painted in shades of dark mahogany, antique gold and olive green. Surrounded by untended woodland, the town feels like one of the last outposts of civilisation, once at peace with nature, now obscurely threatened. Every small, casual, even accidental action is laden with import.

The balance of the film hinges on the relationship between two men: Elwood, who is hanging around in the hope that he can still squeeze out the money he is owed, and Sam (Jon Bernthal), the former rodeo champion who runs the local motel. Both have roots in Virginia and this incidental connection inspires them to look out for one another in small ways on which big things may hinge. Sam is troubled by something unspecified in his past, a deeply caring man who doesn't spare much of that care for himself. Elwood is a cool-tempered psychopath who also seems to have been through difficult times. Dagg finds the humanity in both of them, thanks in large part to superb work by the actors.

The interplay of light and shadow in Dagg's imagery reflects the melancholy mood of the piece and is perfectly complemented by Brooke and Will Blair's score. Jessica Lee Gagné's cinematography owes something to film noir but has a character that is wholly its own. Every detail of this film is considered and rendered with the utmost care. In places it is terrifying, in others seductively beautiful. Cinema as complete as this is a rare treasure. Sweet Virginia is spellbinding.

Reviewed on: 10 Nov 2017
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A burglary-homicide rattles the residents of a small Alaska town.
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Director: Jamie M Dagg

Writer: Benjamin China, Paul China

Starring: Jon Bernthal, Rosemarie DeWitt, Imogen Poots, Odessa Young. Christopher Abbot

Year: 2017

Runtime: 105 minutes

Country: US, Canada

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