Over the past few years, Taylor Sheridan has won acclaim for writing gritty crime dramas like Sicario and Hell or High Water, and his directorial debut, Wind River. Director James M. Dagg, working from a script by the China Brothers, tries to get in on that act with Sweet Virginia. His sophomore feature dredges similar aesthetic and thematic territory. While it succeeds on some fronts, it hits less hard on others, though the finished product is a serviceable, if unremarkable, mumblecore neo-noir.
Former rodeo star Sam Rossi (Jon Bernthal, The Punisher) has left his bull-riding days behind him to run a small-town motel. He’s a solid dude who just wants a quiet life where he can nurse his wounds, both inside and out. But the arrival of outsider Elwood (Christopher Abbott, It Comes at Night, A Most Violent Year) coincides with a slew of violent outbreaks that upend the close-knit community’s calm exterior. Of course, the externally idyllic trappings conceal hidden darkness, which seeps out as things go further off the rails.
Bookended by scenes of startling violence, Sweet Virginia begins and ends with a literal and proverbial bang. While the pieces in between are fine, they don’t measure up to the framework, and there’s never much investment or connection with the story and characters. It lacks a larger punch, and though it hits all the well-worn external genre markers, they don’t carry much weight.
Sweet Virginia is the type of movie where much remains unsaid. An obvious intentional choice, these aren’t people who open up about their feelings. While this sets a certain tone and expectation, it’s missing any real hook to grab the audience a reel in the viewers. There’s little to latch onto and take to heart.
Bernthal simmers and smolders beneath the stoic face he presents to the world. He’s made a career out of playing quiet tough guys who contain roiling internal seas. Even though the film reveals very little of what burns below the stone-faced façade, the audience feels the heat. The script never digs into the specifics, but his weariness and discontent have a palpable presence.
Abbott alternates between an aw-shucks, down-home affability and a seething, unhinged rage, hovering between tranquility and fury. It’s difficult to tell if he’s clever and manipulative or mentally damaged, though the reality is he’s probably both. Again, his background, origins, and motives remain veiled and obscure beyond the most surface level. But, like Sam, we get a sense of Elwood and who he is; we may not know the nuts and bolts, but we know both men. Outside of Bernthal and Abbott, however, there’s not much in the way of depth or investment.
More mood and atmosphere than suspense, Sweet Virginia tries to fashion a twisty, labyrinthine plot with a doe-eyed, in-over-her-head young wife (Imogen Poots, GreenRoom); a grieving widow harboring her own secrets (Rosemarie DeWitt, Poltergeist); and violent hotel guest who is there for some reason. While Dagg has a solid grasp on the look and feel of the place, most of these threads remain underdeveloped and ring hollow at best, pointless at worst.
Visually, Sweet Virginia is dark to the point where it becomes muddy and faces fade into the shadows of dimly lit scenes. And quiet, mumbled dialogue permeates the film. Some of this is purposeful—interiors with a single lamp, or a parking lot where a bare bulb provides the only illumination; and scenes where the camera remains in the cab of a truck while characters speak in muted tones on the other side of the glass. Others feel like technical errors, though admittedly, the blame for some has to fall on the visual and auditory quality of the screener I received. It wasn’t great, but I can’t help but feel the screener problems only enhanced larger issues.
Sweet Virginia shows promise for James M. Dagg as a filmmaker. Only his second time out as director, there’s definite potential, especially in regards to tone and ambiance. While it’s a solid effort, with two strong central performances, there’s simply not enough to set it apart. Compactly scripted, though narratively paint-by-numbers, the plot relies too heavily on cliché and coincidence. There’s an air of menace, but little suspense. In the end, it’s a slow-burn thriller that never truly catches fire. [Grade: B-/C+]