Saturday, December 2, 2017

Movie Reviews: Sweet Virginia

Sweet Virginia
directed by Jamie Dagg
Occasionally I watch some of the true crime shows on the Investigation Discovery cable channel. Trashy I know, but I blame one of my cousins for introducing me to this stuff. As she jokes, if I ever come up missing, thanks to her experience with this channel she'll know where to start searching for the killer. One of the homicide detectives whose case work is recreated on the network is a very deadpan fellow. He points out that people are quite predictable. The detective says, and I doubt that he originated this bromide, that when people kill someone it's usually for one of just three reasons, sex, money or revenge. Find the motive and you'll usually find the killer pretty quickly. Sweet Virginia is a noir drama that shows the truth behind that saying. Sweet Virginia is a very dark film. I don't mean in terms of subject matter. I mean that the director has chosen a color palette and sound levels that make it challenging to both see and hear what's taking place. This makes sense for the story if only because everyone in this movie has secrets and hidden agendas. They aren't necessarily truthful with themselves let alone other people. 

I liked that this movie was something of a throwback to classic films of the sixties and seventies. There were a lot of long unhurried takes showing people engaged in mundane everyday activities. From time to time there would be something referenced that later proved to be critical, but this was rarely done in such a way that the viewer would pick up on it immediately. Or perhaps I should write that this was rarely done in such a way that I would pick up on it immediately. You may well be ever so much smarter and more perceptive.



Although this movie is only a tad over ninety minutes it feels longer. I wouldn't call it slow moving but rather deliberate. It takes its time. Watching this movie made me realize how much I've gotten used to the dumbed down sped up story lines more closely associated with Hollywood blockbusters. That's a bad thing I think. So it was nice to have something that would painfully stretch my attention span back to its normal length, even if I occasionally wondered if ninety seconds of someone looking into a mirror was really necessary. The actors and actresses were able to dig a little bit into their roles in Sweet Virginia. Most of the actors and actresses say more with their body language, eyes, and facial expressions than they do with their lines.

Again, this movie is very dark visually. I can't remember too many brightly lit scenes. Much of the action takes place at night. And the scenes that don't happen at night usually occur during overcast days. This movie is set in Alaska though I think most scenes were shot in British Columbia. The nature views are magnificent. You'll want to visit, though you'll probably want to avoid any card games. Sweet Virginia opens with three friends in a closed diner about to start up their weekly poker game and discuss very important top secret manly man things. These plans are temporarily put in abeyance when a stranger who we will later know as Elwood (Christopher Abbott) enters the diner and orders food. Rather disturbingly he knows the name of one of the men. The men order Elwood to leave. He does that. Elwood returns shortly afterwards and kills all three men. 


Sam Rossi (Jon Bernthal) is a former rodeo star and current owner of a local motel. Sam is not strictly speaking physically disabled but he does have a limp, headaches, and the beginnings of Parkinson's Disease. Getting thrown from bulls and kicked in the head will do that to a man. Sam is both emotionally withdrawn and super kind once you get to know him. But he doesn't let most people get to know him. Sam is processing some serious and permanent personal loss. The only people he does let inside his circle of trust are Maggie (Odessa Young), his front desk clerk and daughter substitute, and Bernadette (Rosemarie DeWitt) ,a shapely woman newly widowed by Elwood's actions. Bernadette and Sam have been a secret item for a very long time. Now that she's a widow Bernadette sees no reason to hide her lust love for Sam any more. Bernadette wants commitment. She's just being honest when she talks of not having cried over her husband's death. 

One night when Sam wants to do his normal wham bam thank you ma'am and bounce, Bernadette's response is both poignant and natural, not ideological. Even though both Sam and Bernadette are doing wrong the film's writing and direction posits them as morally complicated people. Adultery aside, Sam and Bernadette are decent people. Need can make people do desperate silly things. Sam may love Bernadette or Bernie as he calls her, but he isn't all that crazy about her publicly embracing him or making goo-goo eyes at him. Sam likes his privacy and his distance.

Elwood decides to stay at Sam's motel. Although Elwood murdered three men, that wasn't the plan. A local woman, Lila (Imogen Poots), grew tired of her husband. Lila wanted the money from her husband's businesses and insurance policies. Elwood recognizes Sam as a former rodeo star. Elwood is a huge rodeo fan. The abrupt Elwood attempts to become Sam's friend. Sam is uneasy about this. Elwood is broken inside, in a different way than Sam is. Both Sam and Elwood have tremendous difficulty verbalizing emotions. This film slowly and skillfully ramps up the dread and intensity which the viewer feels. This may not be an original story but as mentioned, people commit murder for the same reasons over and over again. This film has some things to say about honesty, regret, love and evasion. If you have some patience this slow burn of a movie could be worth your time. In many respects this is an updated Western. It was also reminiscent of the Coen Brothers' works such as Fargo.
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