I remember my buddy Huston showing me the trailer for this film Sweet Virginia, that I had never heard of previously, last year and I was immediately hooked. I just knew right then, I want to watch this film. I’m all about violent New Americana films about the consequences of violence and hard choices – after all, Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin and Green Room) is one of my favorite filmmakers. I was predispositioned to love Sweet Virginia. It didn’t make it to theaters in my area and I was too cheap at the time to rent it on VOD, but it finally dropped on Showtime over the weekend so I immediately watched it, having been anticipating it for almost a year now. Let me just say, it lived up to my hype and then some. Had I seen this last year when it was released, it would have easily been in my top 10 favorite films.
Sweet Virginia takes place in a small Alaskan town where hotel owner and former rodeo star Sam Rossi (Jon Bernthal) strikes up a relationship with young drifter Elwood (Christopher Abbott), who unbeknownst to Sam, is responsible for a series of killings in the town.
Right from the opening shot you get the quick impression that this filmmaker knows exactly what mood and tone he wants out of this, and achieves it well. Jamie M. Dagg is a director I was unfamiliar with, but am very excited about now. He shows an immaculately steady hand in how he shoots his scenes and paces his film. Nothing feels accidental, you don’t feel like he’s settling for simple coverage in his shots – even if he is. His film is exacting in its pace, eerily unsettling while remaining authentically human. He never glorifies the violence that drives the film, it’s always presented in an authentic manner that reminds us these people are just humans who are in a situation they aren’t equipped for. The violence feels almost accidental, messy, driving home how ugly the act of violence is. I’m buying stock in Dagg.
Jon Bernthal and Christopher Abbott are always terrific no matter how bad the material is. Not to play hipster, but I bought my Bernthal stock way back in 2010 when he popped up in The Ghost Writer. I knew then he was great, he only has like 3 minutes in that film but you don’t forget him. He sticks with you. There’s just a natural warmth and trust to him that you attach yourself to whenever you watch him. He deserves more lead roles. Christopher Abbott is haunting here, bringing a new level of intensity I haven’t seen from him as the sociopathic Elwood. He shifts the tone of his voice to an unsettling deep pitch, every word from him creeps into the viewer’s ear threateningly. Underrated actresses Rosemarie DeWitt and Imogen Poots round out the cast, delivering quality work.
The cinematography by Jessica Lee Gagné is tremendous. There are several images that remain with you long after the film. Consider one scene where Elwood is sitting in his hotel room looking at himself in the mirror, which is two parts since it’s a hotel closet mirror, and he tilts his head so that his face is cut in half against the line where the mirrors meet. It’s just a wondrous visual representation of his fractured psyche. Another amazing shot also involves a mirror. In the climax, Elwood is searching a hotel room for Sam to kill him, and he points his gun at a closet mirror, aiming at his own reflection and then firing. He’s trying to kill whoever may be behind that mirror, but waits just long enough for the image of him shooting his own reflection kick in. I would like to see more films shot by Gagné. The Blair Brothers do the score and deliver their best work to date. It’s a deep, thrumming, unsettling orchestration that culminates in a heartbreaking string score that plays over the finale.
The climax results in a decision on whether or not Sam must commit a violent act, as it must. What sticks with you is not the decision he makes, but the look on his face after he commits the violent act. He’s stuck with the uncertainty that the audience feels – he probably didn’t have to do that. Most films have a final violent act that feels triumphant, this one you just feel sorrow that he felt forced to do it, and that he now has to live with it. I wish I could go back in time and fix reality so that I could have seen this in theaters, because it’s a glorious work that I will not forget. Let’s not make this a forgotten gem, instead celebrate it while we can. Track this film down. I see hundreds of films a year, and not many have the impact on me that this one did. I’m late to the party on this film, but I will always remember Sweet Virginia as one of 2017’s finest.