by Hope Madden
Which is a better death—a bullet, or a broken heart? Aah, the neo-noir, always trodding that lonesome, masculine road.
Director Jamie Dagg’s latest effort, the brooding Sweet Virginia, contemplates many of the same bruised musings in many of the old, familiar ways. But between Benjamin and Paul China’s taut script and an ensemble’s powerful performances, you won’t mind.
Jon Bernthal leads the cast as Sam, former rodeo star and current proprietor of small town motel Sweet Virginia. It’s the kind of place where a drifter (Christopher Abbott) might stay, a high school kid (Odessa Young) might take a part-time job, a new widow (Rosemary DeWitt) might find comfort or a femme fatale (Imogen Poots) might find danger.
Bernthal charms playing against type and spilling over with tenderness. His every moment onscreen is abundant with warmth, a curious choice for a hillbilly noir’s male lead, but it pays off immeasurably.
Abbott is his fascinating opposite. Both dark and imposing, Abbott’s Elwood festers and stews, a pot of simmering violence waiting to bubble over. Like Bernthal, Abbott chooses an approach to his character that is nonstandard and, in both instances, carving such believable and unusual men in such a familiar environment gives Sweet Virginia more staying power than it probably deserves.
DeWitt reminds us again of her skill with a character, embracing Bernie’s brittleness and resilience to craft an authentic presence. More impressive, though, is Poots in an aching performance.
Daggs shows confidence in his script and his performers, siding with atmosphere over exposition and letting scenes breathe. His string-heavy score and fixation with reflections and the spare light cast by a lonely street lamp create a mood that is familiar, yes, but fitting and welcome.
This is Coen territory, and where the Brothers can always find texture in even the most threadbare of material, Daggs’s film feels superficial. It holds your attention and repays you for the effort with a series of finely drawn and beautifully delivered characters, not to mention a script that invests in clever callbacks as well as character.
It’s a gripping film that lacks substance, a well-told reiteration on the same theme.