Sweet Virginia is a tense slice of backwoods life

Three men playing a late-night poker game are interrupted by the arrival of a man demanding the early bird special. The bar is closed, but the patron won’t leave, and the disagreement ends the only way it can, with a triple homicide. From the first moments of Sweet Virginia, the ominous, droning score of Brooke Blair and Will Blair—brothers of actor Macon Blair and collaborators with their mutual friend, director Jeremy Saulnier—set the tone for a white-knuckle thriller that never lets up on the tension and dread.

Someone cast Jon Bernthal in a nice romantic comedy

Jon Bernthal stars as Sam, an ex-rodeo rider who now runs a roadside motel in a small Alaskan town. The looming mountains thickly carpeted in forests, the gorges, and the rhythm of a blue collar town feel like a slice of rural Virginia in the Yukon, and provide a neat subliminal character detail for Sam. He left Virginia, but landed somewhere that reminds him of home, revealing a streak of sentiment, even sensitivity, that pops up in Sam throughout the film. And it’s a very Bernthal performance, totally convincing in its physicality—Sam has a stiff-legged limp and a case of the shakes—and unpredictable in its shades. Bernthal never plays nice, normal guys where nothing ever goes wrong, so you’re just waiting for Sam’s other shoe to drop the whole film, which just adds to the general air of tension.

Where he gets to play like, a regular guy with no problems

Sam’s foil is Elwood (Christopher Abbott, James White), a man so unnervingly intense that there’s either something wrong with him, or he’s a psychopath, or both. Elwood is a resident of Sam’s motel, and recognizes Sam the rodeo champ, a fellow Virginian. Their interactions are never totally peaceable, but they develop a kind of travel-buddy vibe, and Sam is the only person who doesn’t seem completely revolted by Elwood upon first contact.

Sweet Virginia is extremely well made, coming from director Jamie Dagg (River), and writers Benjamin China and Paul China, who found their script on the Blacklist a few years ago. And it’s no wonder, it’s a tight piece of genre writing, with no wasted words or moments, and combined with Dagg’s character-first direction makes for a top-notch thriller that is a little sad underneath the murder theatrics. Sam is a profoundly sad person, self-medicating his pain and in love with a married woman (who is conveniently freed by that triple homicide), mentoring a girl who works at his motel in lieu of the daughter he lost or left behind, it’s not entirely clear. He’s a man made from his regrets, who seems content just to pass the time until his brain injury obliterates whatever is left of him.

And this is his normal friend who gives wacky advice

The women of Sweet Virginia aren’t much better off, haunted and poisoned by disappointment in turn. Bernie (Rosemarie DeWitt) is free to be with Sam, but has nightmares about the husband she betrayed. And Lila (Imogen Poots) is scared and bitter, saddled by a mountain of debt where she expected a fortune. There’s a slight whiff of Fargo to the proceedings, but in a Coen Brothers movie there is some cosmic joke being played on the characters. Sweet Virginia has no such cosmic punchline (although the person who hired the hitman listens to Christian radio), just a collection of sad broken people living in a dead-end town. Even the final images of Bernie and Sam are tainted by the specter of the fall that crippled Sam, a reminder of the brutal, deteriorating future he faces.

And everything works out and no one dies at the end

Sweet Virginia is in the vein of other backwoods thrillers like A Single Shot and Out of the Furnace, and a little like Hell or High Water but without the moral about post-recession America. It’s a straight-ahead thriller that excels at maintaining a constant sense of dread, and it picks up a little extra oomph from the caliber of the various performances. (Also, Justified fans, the opening scene features Boon and Doyle Bennett at a table together.) Sweet Virginia is a slow burn, finely attuned to its characters and its world, a thriller touched by noir and Westerns. It’s defined not by violence but by the routines of the lives that must continue in the wake of that violence, and shattered people that can only pick up so many pieces.

Sweet Virginia will be in theaters and available on demand from November 17.

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