A guy walks into a bar. He walks out of the bar. He walks into the bar and shoots everyone inside. That’s the bleak punchline opening Appalachian neo-noir Sweet Virginia, a film which rambles, hidden in the darkness of a town where dawn never seems to break. Literally: Nighttime seems endless in this film, either shot at twilight or during the witching hour, the perfect environment for Elwood, a hitman with the single-minded intensity of a Travis Bickle or an Anton Chigurh, who sits in his room at a sprawling motel like a dormant volcano (and the viewers are the only geologists in town). Elwood is played by Christopher Abbott, who’s before undermined the innocent face and soft-spoken demeanor inherent in his recurrence as an ex-boyfriend that’s fallen on hard times in Girls, but never like this. He’s much tougher than he looks, and the only person he becomes close with during his stay is the exact opposite.
The motel’s owner, an ex-rodeo star named Sam (Jon Bernthal), is a burly, bearded cowboy with a limp and early-onset Parkinson’s. One too many falls. Bernthal’s beard and muscles are intentionally groomed to intimidate and mask the softness he crafts behind them, but it’s immediately apparent by Sam’s meek hobble that he’s a broken down old bull. An old-soul sadness has seeped into his bones; he can still clearly remember what it was like to have the cocky power of an athlete. There’s loss in every prop decorating his home and work, as opposed to the blank living quarters of the hitman. Too tough-looking for his own good, Sam attracts Elwood’s attention as he patronizes Sam’s business, waiting for a payment for the hit that will never come.
The two develop a strange relationship that slowly escalates while we find out who owes Elwood, why Elwood is owed and how Elwood’s debt can’t be paid. Director Jamie M. Dagg only touches on his plot briefly enough to make us worry about what information we’re missing, which is the opposite of the classical noir strategy to overwhelm the viewer with misdirection, betrayal and circumstance. There’s a confounding simplicity to Sweet Virginia, making its characters the load-bearing creeps of the film.
Like any good noir, all comes down to desire and absurd nihilism. Dagg’s direction creates the proper atmosphere, but Benjamin and Paul China’s script fills it with nocturnal life. Some of the film’s best moments of dread are conversations much too tense for normal folk, but otherwise perfect for a world in which everyone has a motive and everything is connected. Imogen Poots and Rosemarie DeWitt play widows of those murdered by Elwood, both seeking comfort, and the mysterious ways they’re tied into the plot speak depths about levels of emotional desperation in a small town and the mistakes and panic it can bring. Their humanity, along with Bernthal’s, puts the alien strangeness of Abbott’s performance into stark relief. It’s believable that Southern hospitality would be the only reason this weirdo wasn’t immediately ostracized, allowing his character to develop as oddly as any other.
Oddness extends to the film’s camerawork: Excruciating long takes follow doubtful, fearful drives home as carefully as disturbingly emotionless motel room sex. It’s like the City Planner of this place knew not even daylight could save its inhabitants, and so mapped out a metropolis made of dark corners, shadowy halls, long driveways and windows that could reveal a frightening figure at any time.
We linger on dread throughout Sweet Virginia, externalizing a movie whose strengths are all internal. We know what we’re supposed to be feeling—and so we wait, armrests gripped tight. This narrative strategy can lead to some pretty obvious Chekhov’s gunning, but the eventual implosion of the film’s moving parts is so door-kickingly, window-smashingly, mirror-punchingly satisfying that a motel showdown feels as taut and violently primal as watching a retired bull obliterate one last china shop.
Director: Jamie M. Dagg
Writers: Benjamin China, Paul China
Starring: Jon Bernthal, Imogen Poots, Christopher Abbott, Rosemarie DeWitt
Release Date: Premiered at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter.