Jamie M. Dagg’s Sweet Virginia combines two of the crime genre’s most reliable tropes—the paid killing and the heist gone wrong—and invests them with passages of pregnant deliberation that are meant to highlight the desperation of characters stuck in domestic traps of their own making. The excellent performances occasionally justify this approach, though the dawdling more often appears to be compensating for a lack of ideas. Dagg tries to get by on mood, but we’ve seen this mood many times before, and it’s detached from specificity of character. Imagine Blood Simple without the sharp dialogue, the sense of humor, or the audacious style.
Sweet Virginia invests its energy in gradually sorting out for us how the principal characters connect to the murders of three men in a restaurant during the opening scene. The crime is perpetrated by a bitter drifter, Elwood (Christopher Abbott), and when he crosses paths with Sam (Jon Bernthal), an ex rodeo star running a motel that he inherited from his brother, Abbott and Bernthal are afforded the opportunity to contrast their distinctive energies.
For such a rugged tough-guy type, Bernthal radiates a fascinatingly childlike vulnerability, which sparks friction here with Abbott’s tightly coiled anger and ferocity. Sam moves deliberately, empathetically, while Elwood suggests a snapping turtle with Asperger’s syndrome. There’s an evocative moment in a diner in which we’re allowed to survey at length Sam and Elwood’s respective auras. This sort of sequence—in which observational tone and performative energy successfully usurp the scant plot—is clearly what Dagg’s going for in scene after scene, though he only sporadically realizes this ambition.
Much of Sweet Virginia is composed of generic B-movie brooding. The dialogue is rife with cryptic references to the past and with allusions to events that will figure later in the narrative, while the frames are often bathed in shadows and dim and lonely lights. The prominent female characters played by Rosemarie DeWitt and Imogen Poots are defined only by their proximity to their male counterparts. Elwood hurts a few people randomly to keep the film’s pulse up, and all of this innuendo very gradually builds to an act of haunting and purposefully anticlimactic violence. While its funereal slowness is a relief from the over-compensating freneticism of your average action film cum bloodbath, Sweet Virginia doesn’t have much of a point, as its characters are reductive variables in an inevitable equation of carnage.