Sam (Jon Bernthal) is a simple man with a colorful past that won’t quite let him go. Once upon a time, he was a rodeo star with a family. Now, he is the manager of a motel with a hitch in his step, early on-set Parkinson’s, and is engaged in an affair with a married woman, Bernadette (Rosemarie DeWitt). Essentially, he is a man apart, trying to find his way.
When a troubled man named Elwood (Christopher Abbott) walks into a bar and kills three men, Sam’s small town and existence is shaken up, setting these characters up on a collision course.
Thankfully, director Jamie M. Dagg allows the events of his film, Sweet Virginia, to unfold at their own pace, resisting the urge to speed things up for the audience’s comfort. This is a tense film that doesn’t feel like marching to the drum of its genre’s beat, instead creating its own rhythm. You may have seen this before, but not done in this particular fashion.
Watching this film reminded me of Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider, but reversed. Instead of a preacher with a certain set of skills coming to town and helping the people, Abbott’s mad man comes to this town and causes chaos, forcing Bernthal’s Sam to make a choice.
Bernthal, the star of the Netflix series The Punisher, has been putting in good work for years, mixing his talents into films with larger casts and battling for position in the scope of the plot. Here, Bernthal’s Sam is the center of the action, the soul of the story, and it’s his best work yet-and that’s saying a lot, because the man has lent his talents to some great flicks.
You see, Sam puts his own needs to the side in order to help others, trying to repair a debt he believes he owes due to previous events. Afflicted by a tough condition, he feels limited in the things that grown men should be able to do. That’s not easy to play, but Bernthal nails it.
I loved the way that Dagg and the China Brothers chose truth over bravado in a late fight scene involving Sam and a loud tenant of a hotel. Most filmmakers and creators would have chosen to please the action needy audience. Sweet Virginia sticks to realism, amps up the suspense, and wins big in the end.
Bernthal and Abbott share four key scenes together, and the confrontations are set up like standoffs outside the O.K. Corral. These are two completely different men thrown together due to a series of events that starts with a displeased wife (Imogen Potts), and the actors wisely play up the awkward vibes of two souls trying to stay away from their own separately burning internal flames. We know this won’t last and will lead to action, but Dagg lets it bleed out a little for maximum enjoyment.
Abbott had a tricky role to play, but cleverly taps into Elwood’s deranged state of mind instead of hamming it up. While you understand the terrible things this violent man has done and will continue to do, the actor makes you understand him while being terrified. In a way, the audience is Sam, an innocent man having to do something outside his comfort zone. At the beginning of the film, he wasn’t ready, but he slowly gets there.
IFC Films released Sweet Virginia, and it came and went without much attention in November and December. This film isn’t a loud shoot ’em up thriller, a reboot, comic book sequel, or familiar drama. It’s his own beast, and quite frankly deserves your time.
If you like slow burn thrillers that satisfy, take 90 minutes and settle in for Sweet Virginia. If you want to see a seasoned talent like Bernthal finally get a role that meets his talents, settle in. If you like independent beauties with dark intentions, pull up a seat.
Sweet Virginia is an extremely well-done thriller because it marches to its own beat instead of conforming itself to genre stipulations.
Excuse me while I stand and applaud.