In the shadow of a cold, remorseless mountain, the people of a small Alaskan town live in a valley of thwarted ambitions and slaughtered dreams. Scraping by with any gasps of happiness they can snag, they live in a quiet desperation until a garish act of violence unleashes a chain of events that forces secrets out of the shadows, for better and worse.
Making its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, Sweet Virginia stars Jon Bernthal as Sam, a washed-up rodeo champ who carries a bum leg and a broken heart as he runs the rundown motel left to him by his late brother. There, he looks after his guests and fawns paternally over the plucky teen girl in his employ (Odessa Young), urging her to get to school on time and cheering for her at her games. But his is a lonely life with a ripped-away daughter and a lost wife. Sam spends his nights in the arms of his married lover Bernadette (Rosemarie DeWitt). But when her husband is killed during a seemingly botched burglary, their relationship sparks with change. Could they be together now? Or was this affair just a pocket to hide their pain?
With a life this deprived of deep human connection, it’s little wonder Sam warms so quickly to the antsy Elwood, who’s just arrived at the motel for murky reasons. Girls‘ Christopher Abbott bursts into Sweet Virginia in its first scene and abruptly shoots down three men, leaving Bernadette and her young friend Lila (Imogen Poots) widows. But only one of these deaths was intentional. While Sam buddies up to the socially awkward young man who giddily revels in his rodeo glory, Elwood is growing impatient as Lila scrambles to pay for her husband’s hit. Her only way out of Elwood’s ire is one that will bring Sam and Bernadette into his crosshairs.
Despite its violence and high-drama deceptions, Sweet Virginia is a quiet film, woven with nuanced performances, radiant pain, and naked vulnerability. Director Jaime M. Dagg brews an atmosphere of restrained loves and swelling hurt that carries his slow-burn neo-Western with mesmerizing mood and dizzying emotion. Bernthal, well-known by superhero fans as Daredevil‘s volatile Punisher, slumps his shoulders, and shuns his sneer to play a man once wild, now broken. Sam is tender, and the limp in his leg makes his inevitable showdown with the unhinged Elwood one of gut-churning tension.
Abbott also plays against type here, chucking out charms and smiles for an unnerving portrayal that is oddly reminiscent of Javier Bardem’s iconic hitman Anton Chigur in No Country For Old Men. Despite his small stature, Abbott’s body is rigid with steely threat that explodes in bursts of violence. He is a walking red flag, his voice a low grumble that stumbles over polite conversation like it has a limp. But Sam’s blindness to all this cements how deep his loneliness is, and how much he needs a friend–any friend.
While Sweet Virginia centers on the men–so much so that I can find no images of either of the female leads–Poots and DeWitte offer intense performances. As Lila, Poots is given sweet little screen time to chisel out her arc of murder turned self-sabotage. But as she did in Green Room, this English ingenue shows grit and stirs conflicted feelings of empathy and repulsion. But it’s undoubtedly DeWitte who offers the best performance in a movie full of great ones.
Introduced as a widow who can’t bring herself to cry, DeWitte paints Bernadette’s pain with complexity, folding in regret, guilt and relief into a breathtaking origami of emotion. She’s haunted by nightmares of her dead husband confronting her over her affair, and when she awakes in terror tinged in shame, our pulse spikes with hers. And then we get the softer scenes, in which she strokes Sam’s hair, and wistfully wishes to give him a trim–a simple domestic daydream. It’s moments like these in which Sweet Virginia really does its best work, making our hearts swell with hers at the possibility that might be found in this heartless valley.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Images: XYZ Films