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Sweet Virginia Review

Sweet Virginia is a 2017 thriller about a former rodeo champ who befriends a young man with a propensity for violence.

I really enjoy those gritty, streetwise films of the 1970s, movies like Three Days of the Condor, Straw Dogs, and a few others, ones that made hyper realism their style. There’s been a kind of resurgence of these films lately, with titles like Out of the Furnace, Hell or High Water, and others taking the mantle and carrying on the weight, though an argument might be made that the Coen Brothers never stopped making them. Jamie M. Dagg‘s latest Sweet Virginia is one such movie, a brooding, violent piece of work with a slow menacing burn that recalls these old classics and is clearly influenced by the Coens, making it a familiar but haunting experience.

Former rodeo star, Sam (Jon Bernthal) now manages a motel called Sweet Virginia on the edge of some backwoods Alaska town, nursing his old wounds and doting over his teenaged employee Maggie (Odessa Young), whom he protects like she was his own. Sam is actually entangled with Bernadette (Rosemarie DeWitt), whose husband was recently killed with two others at a diner, a hit that was meant for only one of the other men, the husband of Bernadette’s daughter Lila’s (Imogen Poots), who wanted him dead for his cheating and physical abuse. Turns out Lila planned the killing, hiring a dangerous drifter named Elwood (Christopher Abbott) who is desperate for cash. He takes a room at the motel as he awaits payment, which is slow to come as Lila finds out her husband wasn’t truthful about his money. As Elwood stews, having genuine need for the pay, he befriends Sam, setting up a violent, inevitable collision.

Written by Paul and Benjamin China, the film opens with the diner killing and is a chilling setup, with Elwood a clearly off-center maniac with a trigger finger temper. His efforts to get his target alone fails and in his rage, murders the others. This establishes a sort of pathology for Elwood as he drives about town talking to himself, picking fights with locals who give him the wrong eye. This leaves us constantly mistrustful of him, especially in his quieter moments when he takes to spending time with Sam. Sam has his own haunts, his body pounded by years on the rodeo circuit, one hand shaking from a diagnosed condition. He’s a devoted, kindly man, dedicated to Maggie and feeling guilty by his relationship with Bernadette, even as he’s ever drawn to her. These are terrific movie characters.

What Dagg does best is keep Sweet Virginia lowkey, allowing these few people to gestate and settle into this film. These are deeply human people caught in a horrific web, each making it worse the more they struggle. There is very little action in the film, but the feeling that there will be is almost unbearable as Dagg ramps up tension with pent up violence simmering under each of these men, while the women try simply to hold on. There’s not a bad performance in the lot, with Bernthal especially strong, delivering yet again. Dagg, in his sophomore effort, shows great confidence in his direction, making Sweet Virginia a solid choice for genre fans.

Sweet Virginia Review

Movie description: Sweet Virginia is a 2017 thriller about a former rodeo champ who befriends a young man with a propensity for violence.

Director(s): Jamie M. Dagg

Actor(s): Jon Bernthal, Christopher Abbott, Imogen Poots

Genre: Thriller

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