Starring Jon Bernthal. Rated 14A
Toronto-based filmmaker Jamie Dagg impressed with 2015’s tight, Laos-set thriller River, and that promise is scaled up big-time with Sweet Virginia, a melancholic neonoir that shuns Coen-esque flash and irony for a kind of ambient sadness. Here, everyone is haunted by cycles of violence and driven by deep emotional hurt, including a psychopath who yearns for connection on his own bizarre terms.
In a nice pivot from his regular gig in The Punisher, Jon Bernthal disappears behind a huge beard as shaggy ex rodeo star Sam, sidelined by injury and now limping through the day in a haze of weed as the manager of a motel in Shitsville, Alaska (actually Hope, B.C., standing in beautifully for the film’s lugubrious psychic geography). He’s a decent but broken former tough guy locked in an affair with a woman, Bernadette (Mad Men’s Rosemarie DeWitt), whose husband dies in a bizarre shooting massacre in the film’s opening scene.
Bernthal is fantastically unshowy as a man with a pugilist’s mug but the soul of a bereaved parent, as we eventually learn. He’s the sweetly vulnerable foil to a coiled Christopher Abbott (It Comes at Night), who really gets to cook with a mesmerizingly original turn as Elwood, the low-rent hitman responsible for the killings, stuck in that hotel for most of the film and bugging out while he waits to get paid by the wife (Green Room’s Imogen Poots) of the one guy he was actually hired to shoot. Elwood is all sudden and explosive violence, but he softens when he recognizes Sam from his bull-riding days. The two men forge a delicate bond, and Abbott gets to imbue this already shame-drenched killer with some heart.
Abetted in no small way by Jessica Lee Gagné’s wandering lens and dingy lighting, at times giving it the feel of Edward Hopper on a serious bummer, Sweet Virginia manages to skirt all manner of clichéd setups and crime-thriller illogic to arrive at a climax that still meets the lurid bang-bang requirements of the genre, but also plants its slugs a little deeper than most.