Film Review: Sweet Virginia

Despite the best efforts of a game cast, Jamie M. Dagg’s atmospheric neo-noir is hamstrung by dispiritingly predictable storytelling and thinly drawn characterizations.
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Sweet Virginiaaspires to be both a nuanced exploration of emotionally damaged characters and a taut noir-ish thriller, but these twin emphases end up working against each other, sapping the narrative of momentum, while at the same time failing to offer any legitimate insight into motivation. This is principally the fault of the lackluster script by Ben and Paul China, which exhibits frequent lapses into formulaic screenwriting and delivers flat, hazily sketched-in characters, despite the best efforts of a game cast.

Director Jamie M. Diggs tries to imbue the proceedings with a modicum of style, coming up with some elegant shot compositions along the way, although Jessica Lee Gagné’s cinematography sometimes mistakes murky lighting schemes for studies in moral darkness. Will and Brooke Blair’s droning, scraping score occasionally recalls their work on Blue Ruin, a far more trenchant exegesis of revenge and its violent vicissitudes.

Sweet Virginia opens with brutish Elwood (Christopher Abbott) committing a seemingly motiveless triple murder, then traces the massacre’s aftereffects on our trio of leads: Sam (Jon Bernthal), a former rodeo star, now proprietor of the titular motel, has been carrying on an affair with Bernadette (Rosemarie DeWitt), the widow of one of Elwood’s victims. Lila (Imogen Poots) also lost a husband to Elwood, but that isn’t her only connection to the short-fused killer. This should provide a primo setup for some vintage pulp filmmaking. But the filmmakers seem resolutely chary of delivering the goods, instead asking viewers to invest in characters who largely remain ciphers, despite one or two supposedly defining characteristics.

Sam limps as result of an injury in the rodeo ring, damage that, in true noir fashion, seems as much mental (or moral) as physical. He’s also lost a daughter at some subsequent point in his life, but we’re never told much beyond that bald fact, so that his tentatively paternal relationship with young Maggie (Odessa Young) mostly fails to register. Bernadette is wracked by guilt over her infidelity, which leads to a disturbingly bloody dream sequence, but little else. Brazenly unlikeable, yet somehow charming for all that, Elwood has anger-management problems, which the film amusingly links to some rather florid mommy issues. Lila, the scheming would-be femme fatale, worries about the afterlife.

Lila’s eschatological concerns, a stab at philosophical heft, come across as mere window dressing. Fleeting snatches of dialogue about improved business conditions under a Republican President, as well as a conservative religious radio program heard in the background, seem like a desperate attempt to inject some social commentary. But by far the laziest bit of by-the-numbers screenwriting involves Chekhov’s Gun Syndrome: A firearm that becomes a topic of discussion between the two male leads early on will inevitably (and totally predictably) figure in the film’s tepidly violent denouement.

Nor can Dagg be entirely exonerated of the film’s penchant for sloppy shortcuts. Sweet Virginia ends with one of those soporifically tidy concluding montages that illustrate the fate of each of the main characters—and Sam finally letting Bernadette trim his unruly locks is an especially dopey moment to end on. Even the Blairs’ otherwise discordant score turns unexpectedly upbeat and mushy here. Despite the fact that Grandpa’s Nazi rifle finally gets taken down off the wall, Sweet Virginia ends not with a bang but a whimper.

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