Sweet Virginia: A Half-Baked Noir of Few Words

By Karen Gordon

Rating: B 

What happens when men of few words are the lead characters in a thriller?  In Sweet Virginia, some great actors are left high and dry by a script that doesn't mesh.

The movie reverses the usual “who done it” paradigm and spills its secrets right from the start. Three friends are sitting in a restaurant that one of them owns. It’s after-hours and they’re about to start a friendly poker game.  Then a stranger walks in, kills them and robs the till.

Zzzz... oh sorry. A scene from Sweet Virginia.

Zzzz... oh sorry. A scene from Sweet Virginia.

From the get-go in Sweet Virginia we know “who done it,” and soon we know why.

We’ve solved the crime so now what? It turns out that the tangled web of relationships in this modest neo noir is what the film spends the rest of its running time dealing with. 

Elwood, the killer, played by Christopher Abbot, books a room at a motel that’s run by a former rodeo star, Sam played by Jon Bernthal.  Elwood’s going to stay there until he’s been paid for his work.

Perhaps to pass the time, he tries to make friends with Sam. This isn’t easy because Elwood’s a psychopath with the charm of a hungry cobra, and Sam’s not only a pretty withdrawn dude, but he seems to communicate largely by using Groot’s vocabulary.  He’s as “Aw shucks” as they come, to the point where sometimes we’re gleaning his meaning by gauging the length of the time he spends on the “U” in yup.

And if you don’t believe me, you can ask Sam’s lover Bernie, played by Rosemarie DeWitt. She happens to be the widow of one of the men who Elwood killed at the top of the movie, but she’s way more interested in turning her affair with Sam into something more permanent. And good luck getting an answer from Mr. No Words (Is it Yuuuup, or yp?)

And while we’re waiting for him to make that decision, let’s talk about the real problem with Sweet Virginia.  There are three murders at the beginning of the film, and no one seems to care.

Not the police who are nowhere to be seen for most of the film.  Not the widows of the men killed, the above mentioned Bernie, or her fellow widow, the young Lila, played by Imogen Poots.

In fact Bernie’s question to Lila after the memorial service  is a warm, “What do I do with all his stuff?” (Which, by the way, she asks as she’s showing her pal the safe where her husband kept all his cash. Hmmm. Could this be a bad idea?)  

So the murders, which should trigger an investigation that is central to the film, are instead simply a plot device. Okay, so for what? Well, that shifts around too. 

Sweet Virginia, is from a script written by Benjamin China and his twin brother Paul - aka The China Brothers - that was  high on the Hollywood Black List a few years ago. This is a list that ranks script drafts that are believed to be promising, but have yet to be made. And it makes me want to go finish that script I’ve been procrastinating about for years because unless that script differs greatly from what’s on the screen, the bar is low.

Sweet Virginia has a nice idea at its core, but there’s so much missing in terms of plot and focus, it makes me feel like I don’t have to finish mine either to maybe get it made. 

Okay, maybe that’s harsh. It’s not easy to make a character-driven mystery noir. And Sweet Virginia is taking an honest shot at it.  Unfortunately, with so many pieces missing, and with the story tripping over itself to create interesting characters rather than remembering that it’s a crime thriller, the movie feels more like a faux noir.

This is the second film by Canadian director Jamie M. Dagg who does a nice job creating atmosphere and adding mood touches. For instance, Dagg makes the movie feel, at times, like a slow moving modern western. There’s a slightly slow quality and sense of purposelessness to life in this town as if no one has a job and everyone is kind of sitting around waiting.

At the same time, he keeps some key scenes relatively short, just enough to give us an idea of what’s going on, before making a hard cut to the next scene.  It’s a technique that’s often used to create tension and mystery. And it works nicely, even though it feels, at times like it’s been forced onto the material. 

What gives the film its redeeming high-octane boost is its exceptional cast. I’ll single out Christopher Abbot, Jon Bernthal and Imogen Poots. They are all-star quality actors, who have quietly built portfolios of excellent small character roles and they are unfailingly in the pocket of whatever they’re doing. Their work elevates Sweet Virginia. Bernthal, in particular, hits that sweet spot with his broken, hopeful character, so well that his performance dominates the film. 

Sweet Virginia.Directed by Jamie M. Dagg, Starring Jon Bernthal, Imogen Poots, and Christopher Abbott. Opens December 1 in Toronto, Vancouver, Ottawa, Halifax, Calgary, Montreal, and Winnipeg. Also available across all digital platforms.