Three friends sit at a diner playing cards and unwinding after their life for the day has taken their toll. A man disobeys the CLOSED sign, comes in trying to order food. He knows one of their names, how could this be, but it’s obvious there is more to it than a late night snack. Before long, all are dead and the man leaves as if nothing has happened. Sweet Virginia is a tale about how a seemingly random event can have massive effects on all those around the villain hiding in plain sight.
In Jaime M. Dagg’s new film, Sam (Jon Bernthal) is a quiet mannered man who is trying to reshape his post rodeo life as a motel owner in a small town where everyone is friends. When tragedy of death strikes, Sam doesn’t realize that his new occupant, Elwood (Christopher Abbott) is the perpetrator. That’s just the beginning. As is it with most small towns, the intertwining situations with the community around you adds to complications hidden from the mainstream.
This isn’t giving too much away, as it would normally be, because the writers, Benjamin and Paul China, set the story up from the beginning. The powerful opening of the murder sets a brilliant tone throughout the film. While it is somber, there is a sense of disguised deviance bubbling under the surface. The concept of the true villain is complicated, and as the story unfolds the term becomes blurred. The highlights of the story aren’t hard hitting, but it’s preferred that way, it grows and overtakes you without your knowledge.
This works in harmony with Dagg and his style of filmmaking. There are distinct choices that create the complicated world of Sweet Virginia, but he always lets the story work it’s magic. It’s a slow build, bringing the audience into the fold little by little. When you say a film is slow, it tends to have a negative connotation, but this one does not. The unassuming story ends up being impactful and energetic where it needs to be.
Nothing is forced, no character is forced to be a certain way or interact a certain way with others, and when there are moments and characters that do fall into this category, it’s for a reason: intent. This film has intent, and it’s interesting to watch. You know that every choice that was made during these 90 minutes is deliberate, they pushed the story forward, they described a character without words, and the filmmakers brought you exactly where you’re supposed to be.
When you have such powerful elements as story and character, it’s hard to think that anything else can get in the way. However, you realize that could have been the case by the lack of another element. The film’s score was silent, almost non-existent as the tale unfolded. This can be a tricky element to leave out, as we rely a lot on the cues that music provides for us to emotionally experience.
The lack there of those cues means that you are forced to acknowledge your true emotions, and that is telling. For a film like this, that can be a compelling revelation. Once again, the blending of filmmaking elements proves to create a film that is just so, without swaying the audience in one direction or another.
It’s true, the filmmaking elements created between Dagg and the China brothers have lead to an impressive film, but it wouldn’t be able to live in the real world without the actors’ talent, most impressively by Bernthal and Abbott. As the pro and antagonist, respectfully, their chemistry is key to the film’s success. With each role Bernthal surprises me in some way. The role of Sam, the ex-rodeo bull rider, can be interpreted in a few ways, but none like how Bernthal has chosen to portray him, quiet and refined. Elwood, on the other hand, is also quiet and refined, but with a hint of malice. Not only does the story find life through them, but they are the reason why the visuals are so compelling.
The interesting things about this film are the way it just breaths, and the shots are no exception. They are set up with a purpose, everything shown, and not shown, has a specific reason. The story unfolds through the visuals and oozes over the other elements creating a compelling film. It’s not that the shots aren’t fancy, because they are beautiful to look at, but they convey so much more than that when paired with everything else.
Sweet Virginia is a great example of how when blended right, filmmaking elements can create something extraordinary. The slow powerful build of the film is not for all, but those who enjoy it will appreciate it on a deep level. It might be worth checking out for Bernthal’s performance, as he shines in this film.
Check your local theater listings for showtimes.
Written by Lisa Mejia
Image provided by Prodigy PR