There’s not a lot of joy at the Sweet Virginia motel. Located somewhere in remotest Alaska, it’s the type of place where nobody stays for long and nobody seems to have much fun while they’re there. Its proprietor, Sam (Jon Bernthal) does what he can. A former rodeo star, he walks with a limp and has trouble holding his hand steady. When faced with a complaint about an unruly resident, Sam addresses it but doesn’t push too hard, even if it means nothing gets resolved. He didn’t come here for trouble.
We don’t learn that much about Sam over the course of the film, but we learn what we need to know. There’s a picture of a wife and child he keeps in his room, but they’re gone and he doesn’t really talk about them. That part of his life is done. He didn’t move here to remember. It’s not that sort of town. Sam’s in a lonely place even before he becomes aware of the murky depths of the film noir surrounding him.
Sweet Virginia, the second feature from Canadian director Jamie M. Dagg, would probably work in another setting, but the sense of isolation enriches every scene. It’s a film about lonely people in an isolated part of the world, the sort of place where people go to disappear and sometimes slip further away than they’d intended. It’s also one of the most suspenseful and uncompromising noirs of recent years. Working from a script by twin brothers Paul and Benjamin China, Dagg opens the film with a shocking scene of casual violence that suggests the bottom could fall out beneath anyone at any moment.
As a group of men gathers after hours in a restaurant for a friendly card game, they’re interrupted by an unexpected customer who demands service and won’t be turned away. He seems a little off but more an annoyance than a threat until he takes out a gun and dispatches them methodically, all before checking into the Sweet Virginia under the name of Elwood.
Christopher Abbott plays Elwood in a chilling, complicated performance that again confirms him as an actor of rare intensity and range. (See also the great James White and It Comes at Night.) Elwood’s good at his job but bad at social cues. In one scene, he has methodical sex with a hooker, almost as if sex was just another box on a checklist, a need to be met so he can get back to the business at hand. He has a job to do and a plan to do it and wants nothing to get in his way. At moments, he seems to be offering a more grounded version of the character Ben Affleck played in The Accountant, a killer whose brain seems to allow him a surgical focus on the task at hand while isolating him from the rest of the world.
Not that he’s averse to talking to others. He just doesn’t do it well. He even forms a kind of friendship with Sam, who’s unaware of why Elwood’s in town. (He’s not the sort to ask questions.) But Sam eventually finds his involvement with his guest runs deeper than awkward conversations about their shared background in Virginia (where Elwood was raised by a father who idolized Sam in his rodeo star days). One of the men killed was married to Bernadette (Rosemarie DeWitt), the murder ending an unhappy marriage that had driven her into Sam’s arms. Another was married to Bernadette’s friend Lila (Imogen Poots). There’s was not a happy marriage, either, and therein lies a story that Sweet Virginia unravels over the course of the film.
The script features some effective twists that are better left unspoiled, but it’s the atmosphere and characters that set the film apart. Beneath a head of Bob Dylan curls and behind an unruly beard, Bernthal conveys a sense of kindness that his character’s few words don’t always express. Forced to resort to violence in one scene, Sam fails decisively, and the look on Bernthal’s face registers the shock of a man who realizes his body’s decline has made it hard for him to make his way through the world anymore.* It’s a sharp contrast to Abbott’s work as Elwood, whom he treats as a man with nothing but confidence, and with a seemingly bottomless ability to make the world submit to his will. It’s a study in contrasts playing out against a stark, uncaring background.
(*) By coincidence, the film is hitting theaters on the same day the Bernthal-starring The Punisher premieres on Netflix, which will no doubt feature a less vulnerable performance.
Not that the film’s without warmth. Bernthal and DeWitt generate a nice chemistry as lovers who’ve found each other after abandoning the romantic notions of their youth. DeWitt’s too strong a presence to let what could have been a stock character fade into the background and Poots is similarly good as a woman who comes to realize too late that playing the part of the femme fatale has gotten her in over her head. In a small touch typical of the film, she drives nervously through the night unsure if she’s being followed while listening to a radio preacher drone on about morality and consequences — both reminders that some choices have unfathomable consequences and wait for her both outside the car and within. She can keep driving, but even in this corner of the world where people go to be forgotten, there are some things you can’t escape.
Sweet Virginia opens in limited release this Friday, November 17th before expanding.