In a film already stacked with acting talent, Hope, B.C., gives one of its all-time best performances as a rain-slicked and permanently gloomy corner of remote Alaska in the thrillingly downbeat crime drama Sweet Virginia.
“I think it was a perfect setting for that movie,” says Christopher Abbott, calling the Georgia Straight from his home in New York. “That landscape is a character on its own because it’s beautiful yet it’s very claustrophobic. It’s all surrounded by mountains, so it’s kinda eerie and strange in that way. You can never find a horizon.”
Opening Friday (December 1), Sweet Virginia is largely about people looking in vain for their horizons. Exactly one day after wrapping the no less claustrophobic horror film It Comes at Night, Abbott arrived in Hope to play the film’s killer for hire, Elwood. He guns down three men in the opening scene and then simmers his way through a tense neo-noir that strives for (and achieves) a lot more depth than usual.
“We’re not breaking any new ground in terms of this story,” notes Abbott, whose work in films like James White has established the 31-year-old as easily one of the most impressive actors of his generation. “So then where do you go from there?” In this case, you give more dimension to your character than this kind of movie ever required, dressing what would normally read as “a pretty classic noir villain” in subtler shades of longing and shame, albeit between bouts of unhinged violence.
“I think, in some ways, he loathes himself,” Abbott says. “It’s a strange thing; he’s a narcissist in a lot of ways. He kinda runs the gamut on a lot of traits, but the key is that he despises humans. That was a big thing that [director] Jamie [Dagg] and I had talked about. He finds them disgusting, vile, gross, almost across the board—except for the character of Sam. For whatever reason, he kinda admires this guy.”
Cast against type as a bearlike, if peaceable, former rodeo star grieving the loss of a child, Jon Bernthal plays Sam with equivalent chasms of hurt, which, in turn, pacifies the almost childlike Elwood—up to a point. It’s to the enormous credit of Dagg and his cast, which also includes Rosemarie DeWitt and Imogen Poots, that so much of this indie film was caught on the fly.
“All of a sudden, you just gotta show up and do it,” Abbott says, admitting that he was still debating whether he should shave his head on the first day of production. He opted instead for severely slicked-back hair with a “kinda ’80s punk/grunge” look that registers as ever so slightly off.
“The thing is, especially with Sam, Elwood is always trying his best to seem normal,” Abbott remarks. “And he’s not.”
Neither is the mesmerizing and, frankly, risky performance that Abbott would eventually commit to. It could have tanked, right?
“Totally!” Abbott says. “Look, I’ve read the reviews; some think it did tank! But I think that’s what’s kind of fun about it. I enjoy trying to dance on the line sometimes and not always play it safe.”
Well, the Straight can assure the actor that we also read the reviews and we saw nothing of the sort.
“Oh,” Abbott replies, chuckling, “I did my own digging, don’t worry.”More