Sweet Virginia is an indie thriller starring Jon Bernthal, Christopher Abbott, and Imogen Poots. It centers around Sam (Bernthal), manager of the Sweet Virginia Hotel. After a horrific shooting takes place in his small town, he befriends a strange man who happens to be staying at his establishment, but could this man be the person causing the violent occurrences?
The performances in Sweet Virginia are great across the board. Jon Bernthal does fantastic work here as a character that is definitely tangential to his normal type. He’s not a giant, gun-toting badass who destroys everyone he meets. He’s an authentic guy, someone with real problems. He’s got this limp and quaky hands; he’s seen tragedy but it hasn’t shut him down the way Bernthal was in, say, The Punisher. His relationship with Odessa Young’s character, Maggie, is a highlight of the film as well. Their chemistry is authentic, and their father/daughter style dynamic is great. Speaking of which, for as little she is in the film, Odessa Young is great. Imogen Poots is stellar as always. Although she doesn’t get a lot of screen time, she does great work with what she’s given. Rosemarie Dewitt does a great job as the wife of a murder victim and friend of Bernthal’s character. Their relationship and their conversations were raw and heartfelt, and their chemistry was fantastic. I think the shining light of this film, however, is Christopher Abbot, delivering a powerhouse performance as a very different kind of killer than we’re used to seeing. Abbott digs deep and brings out a truly disturbing psychological component to his character, Elwood. He’s crazed, brutal, and a borderline sociopath. It’s a truly excellent performance, his second of the year next to It Comes at Night. Abbott is definitely a talent to watch out for.
Sweet Virginia has this deep feeling of unease, almost as if you are not safe while watching it. This air of malevolence hangs over the whole film, as we watch Elwood rip through this quiet town in a violent rampage from the opening to the conclusion. The cinematography and editing only magnify this, on top of looking exceedingly beautiful. Sweet Virginia is also incredibly well paced. It’s a slow burn, but I was never bored, never felt the need to check the runtime or anything. I was engrossed and entertained by just about every minute of the film.
The plot is slightly different from what the trailers lead audiences to believe. This isn’t a bad thing at all, but it’s not JUST a straight up crime potboiler. There’s also a good bit of relationship drama, people moving forward and coming to terms with their mistakes, and learning how to move on from not having a parent or being unable to BE a parent. On top of those, however, we do get a somewhat standard crime thriller: violent stranger in a small town stirs things up, cat and mouse, etc. We’ve seen these things before, but they’re so well executed here that I honestly didn’t care. Mixing Imogen Poots’ story into the “pot” is something that definitely lends a dimension that I wasn’t expecting. To explain would reveal major spoilers, so I’ll just say that she makes a grave mistake and she pays dearly for it. The storylines I found the most interesting were between Sam and Bernadette, as well as Sam and Maggie. I’d have been down to spend two hours with either of those threads as their own separate movie; however, they spend the perfect amount of time on each for my money.
I want to take a moment to return to Abbott’s character. Most films like this feature an assassin villain with composure, on top of things for the most part. Not here, as Elwood is completely unhinged and so prone to violence that it’s seemingly addictive to him. He intentionally starts fights with stranger for no reason, just to beat them into the dirt and leave them. He kills more people than he was supposed to, and when backed into a corner he makes a lot of desperate plays that wind up coming back to bite him. This is all well and good, but on top of that he’s pretty charming in his scenes with Bernthal’s Sam. Sure, he’s a little off and has some social issues, but he seems like a pretty collected guy. That makes his violent outbursts and anger-fueled actions all the more shocking and disturbing. They’re jarring, in a good way, when juxtaposed against his calm demeanor in his scenes with Sam.
If I have to pluck out any issues I have with Sweet Virginia, I’d probably have removed the “subplot” about the abusive tenant at the hotel. Maybe I just missed something, but these moments didn’t seem to do anything to enhance the plot in any way; they just felt more like a way to instill conflict more than anything else, and I’d have been more interested in that time being used for either of Sam’s great relationships. The next is kind of a negative-positive depending on how it makes you feel: we don’t learn an overwhelming amount about Elwood. We know he’s heavily motivated by money and he’s clearly psychotic, but we don’t know a lot about him as a person. There’re a couple scenes where he discloses information about his past and family, but an occurrence very soon after calls the validity of those stories into question. I personally love it, because it feels very Joker-like in the way that we don’t know what backstory is real, or even if Elwood knows. That being said, I can see it being a problem for some. I will also say that as tense as the finale is between Sam and Elwood, it feels like it ends pretty abruptly.
Sweet Virginia doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but its set apart by great performances, a fantastic villain, and its tense and malevolent atmosphere. It meanders for a couple brief moments, and its finale could have been a little stronger, but this is a great crime thriller and is definitely worth your time.
What did you think of Sweet Virginia? Let me know in the comments below! Stay nerdy everyone!