SWEET VIRGINIA – movie review


    IFC Films
    Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
    Grade: B
    Director:  James M. Dagg
    Written by: Ben China, Paul China
    Cast:  Jon Bernthal, Christopher Abbott, Imogen Poots, Rosemarie DeWitt, Odessa Young
    Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 10/19/17
    Opens: November 17, 2017
    Sweet Virginia Movie Poster
    We in New York may think of Alaska as the place to tour once in a lifetime, usually by cruise ship because of the dearth of navigable roads.  But there are people living there for reasons other than to make money on oil rigs, and the folks in the small town that seems as though it had broken off from a mainland and disappeared into the sea (filmed in Hope, British Columbia), are not making great sums of cash.  This is a backwoods place that evokes the spirit of folks who may be at the end of their rope, often because of the death of a spouse or the alienation of a daughter.  The scene is worked out by Jamie M. Dagg in his sophomore feature, his other work being “River” which takes place also in a remote region–of southern Laos.
    The noirish atmosphere makes a character of the darkness while prodding us to see the action on the big screen, and I missed something viewing it through a link on my computer.  The film opens on three men playing cards in a café after midnight, its door open (a tragic mistake), leading to a visit by the cold-blooded Elwood (Christopher Abbott), who insistence that he’s hungry.  Seemingly in a huff because he is told to leave, he returns with a revolver killing all three card players.  We find that he was hired as a hit man to take out the no-good husband of Lila (Imogen Poots) because, she says, he cheated on her. But the real motive is money, which she expects to collect upon his death. Trouble brews when she cannot come up with the cash, which causes him to remain and look for other sources of income in the town.

    There are moments of extreme violence but Dagg’s principal interest is in a psychological study of flawed characters, brought out principally by the friendship of the killer with Sam Rossi (Jon Bernthal) an ex-rodeo champion and now owner of the motel “Sweet Virginia,”  Both are lonely men, heartbroken, attempting to relieve their pain through human some connection.  Elwood does this, sadly, by hiring a hooker for his motel room.  Sam’s solution is a better one: a friendship with benefits with Bernadette (Rosemarie De Witt).  Bernadette is newly widowed by the murder, and much is made of the tenderness they feel for each other discerned poetically by the way she cuts his Samson-like hair, which comes across almost like sexual foreplay.

    The film can be compared to the Coen Brothers’ masterwork “No Country for Old Men,” with its greater dark humor such as killer Anton Chigurh’s making life-and-death decisions by flipping a coin.  There is abundant quiet dialogue in a film that does succeed in evoking the misery of men and women in an Alaskan town as remote as you can get, and the ensemble performances are spot-on.  Still one could hope for more tension to replace some of the soft-spoken, often aimless dialogue.

    Rated R.  93 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
    Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?

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