Movies You Missed: Sweet Virginia
By Jeb Bohn
Sweet Virginia, the second feature film from director Jamie M. Dagg, caught my attention shortly after its release in 2017. The trailer—which you can check out below—drew me in immediately. Then again, I’m a sucker for indie films with strong stories and characters.
That said, I only got around to watching it last week.
I know. I’m a bastard.
The important thing is that I did watch it and I did enjoy it.
The film opens with three men (Tom, Lou, and Mitchell) engaged in an after-hours poker game in a bar owned by Lou (Garry Chalk). A strange man enters and, despite being told the bar is closed, sits down at a table near the entrance.
Mitchell (Jonathan Tucker) approaches the man, reiterating that the bar is closed. After a conversation in which the stranger threatens Mitchell by name, the man leaves and the game resumes. Shortly thereafter, the man returns and kills the three card players.
The following morning, we meet Sam (the excellent Jon Bernthal), a former rodeo star. Now the manager of the Sweet Virginia Motel, Sam is portrayed as meek and mild-mannered. Adding to this are the physical impediments—a limp and weakness in his right arm—he suffered during his bull riding career.
Sam is also shown to be a compassionate and caring man, evidenced by his relationship with Maggie (Odessa Young), an employee at the motel. Sam serves as a father figure for the young woman, whose relationship with her own father is strained.
Sam attends a gathering for Tom—one of the three bar victims—and we learn that Sam has been involved in an affair with Tom’s wife, Bernie Barrett (Rosemarie DeWitt).
A late-night liaison leads the pair to a discussion of Tom’s place in the afterlife. The conversation sparks regret in Sam over his relationship with the recently-widowed woman.
We then meet Lila (Imogen Poots), wife of the late Mitchell McCabe, as she meets with the man from the bar. It’s revealed that Lila hired the man, named Elwood (Christopher Abbott in a very creepy and unstable performance—and I mean that as praise), to kill Mitchell in exchange for $50,000.
The pair initially argue about the conspiracy’s execution. Lila wanted Mitchell—who she accuses of infidelity—dead and questions why Tom and Lou were killed. Elwood blames her since Mitchell hadn’t left the bar by the time she stated.
He then asks for his payment, a request that leaves Lila unsettled. She informs him that she’ll have his money at the end of the week, pending a meeting with Mitchell’s lawyer.
Elwood, who is staying at the Sweet Virginia, heads to the motel office to extend his stay when he meets Sam. Elwood appears to recognize Sam from his rodeo days (going as far as saying that his father was a huge fan), kicking off a would-be friendship, one that Sam is reluctant to engage in.
At a meeting with her husband’s lawyer, Lila learns that Mitchell, an entrepreneur, was broke. She initially refuses to accept this information and is told that he was actually being sued by two business partners. When she asks about his insurance, the lawyer informs her that the policy paperwork she saw was fraudulent and that no money would be coming her way.
She seeks solace by spending time with Bernie and the pair form a kinship. Both women are troubled; Lila by the fear of what the killer will do to her and Bernie, who has been plagued by nightmares of her dead husband. Paranoia eventually consumes Lila, who plans to head to her mother’s house.
Elwood pounces, attacking her while she packs. To save herself, Lila tells him that she knows where he can get the money. Satisfied, Elwood leaves and recruits a young man named Paul (Jared Abrahamson) to assist with a robbery.
The following night, we see Bernie grab a bottle of wine and prepare for a bath. The camera lingers on the window and we see two black-clad figures cutting across the yard towards the house. These events lead us to the culmination of the film’s story.
Why You Should Watch
Sweet Virginia is a strong, noir-ish film with a solid story and well-written characters. Not only are we given insight into Sam’s mindset, we learn more about the supporting characters. We see the progression of Sam and Bernie’s affair and the realization of Lila’s fears. While we don’t get any concrete information on Elwood’s past, we see explosions of the anger that’s boiling just beneath the surface.
It’s a slow burn, though it’s never boring. With a sleek 93 minute runtime, the film never wastes a frame, instead opting to advance its story. From the cinematography to the sound design, everything fits the movie and its tone.
It’s not a film for everyone. As a matter of fact, I have seen a few people decry the ending, and that’s fine. Endings are, after all, tricky. They don’t always work however, in this case, I think it fits the story. That’s what really matters, isn’t it?
I recommend you check it out. If you do, let me know what you think.
And, as promised, here’s the trailer:
Joseph Lyle Taylor
Jamie M. Dagg
November 17, 2017
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