Sweet Virginia, directed by Jamie M. Dagg (River), tells the story of a small town stunned by a sudden and violent crime spree.
The film begins by showing the gruesome and cold-hearted murder of three men, seemingly minding their own business, by a young man whom is not a local to the area.
However, what is presented as a random attack quickly unfolds into something far more sinister, highlighting the cracks within this community and the dark side to this Alaskan town.
The script, written by brothers Paul and Benjamin China (Crawl) is a rare highlight of the film. It seems to understand the characters inside and out, and want to tell more of a story than a typical thriller would do.
In actual fact, the script had been on the Blacklist since 2012, and was tipped to be a success. This would have been in no small part to the flowing dialogue, and at no point did the film fall into cheesy, over the top lines infamous of a modern-day thriller.
Likewise, the script allowed the performances of the leads to feel natural, and interesting. Jon Bernthal is superb in a brooding, darker role, depicting a man (Sam) who is misunderstood, and living a life he did not expect to be in.
Similarly, Rosemarie DeWitt (La La Land, The Watch) plays the vulnerable widow (Bernadette) perfectly. DeWitt and Bernthal have a subtle chemistry, that when on screen together it is possible to see the damage they both feel, and the guards they each hold up.
However, it is Christopher Abbott’s (Martha Marcy May Marlene, A Most Violent Year) portrayal of the psychotic Elwood that grows as the film goes on. At the start, it seems as if he is wooden, or uninspired, yet, it quickly becomes clear that this was a deliberate choice from the filmmakers.
Elwood is unhinged, unemotional and detached, a man who feels nothing at all. So much so, come the end of the film you want to know more about him than anyone else.
Unfortunately, this story translated to screen doesn’t seem to hold up, the films confused tone and the director’s choice of style seemingly takes away from what could have been a unique experience.
Although predominately a thriller, the film itself seems divided. As mentioned, the director’s choice of style means the film moves along at an incredibly slow pace, holding cuts for seconds too long, showing meaningless daily chores, and intercutting scenes with shots of mundane moments.
This style can work and can work effectively, Yorgos Lanthimos springs to mind here. His films, like The Lobster, dwell upon irrelevant tasks, seemingly taking too long to get from one scene to the other.
Yet, the tone of his films allow for this, which is disappointingly not the case for Sweet Virginia, and part of this is because of the duel storylines taking place, and the lack of context to either.
As stated above, the main protagonist is Bernthal’s Sam, and through him we are introduced to all the other characters, building up an idea of what the town is like, and how the murders which have taken place effect each person individually.
However, it is the relationship between Sam and Bernadette that somewhat confuses the tone of the film. For example, at points it seems more like a character study of two damaged individuals, than of those going through a traumatic experience. Similarly, this happens when Sam talks to his staff at his Motel, apparently everyone forgetting about the deadly drama going on around them.
Of course, the director’s choice of long static shots fits perfectly with the damaged individual’s direction, and plays straight into both of the characters psyche, emphasising their mental state, and their mundane lives. Yet, once this is combined with a mass murderer at large, the technique does not hold up.
Unfortunately, scenes which are meant to be tense, edge of your seat moments, fall by the wayside as the use of long takes has been used incessantly, and the introduction of quick cuts feel out of place. This creates a film that clearly had a vision, though was unable to execute it efficiently.
Even though the film is tonally off, it is hard to not keep watching and feel somewhat engaged. Although, it is the strong script and even stronger performances which do this.
Bernthal is like you have never seen him before, he plays the washed up, damaged ex-pro subtly, and simply. However, it is the films unfortunate combination of storylines that confuses it; not an edge of your seat thriller, nor a tear jerking drama, in fact it plays to both and achieves neither.