In “Sweet Virginia,” Lilah (Imogen Poots) isn’t pleased to discover that her husband Mitchell has left her deeply in debt, a fact that may have pushed her to murder had a hitman named Elwood (Christopher Abbott) had not done the job first. Asking her attorney what she’s supposed to do with all the bills, she admits that she wouldn’t have splurged for the mahogany coffin for Mitchell, though her choice is all too perfect for how director Jamie M. Dagg presents the town she lives in – Fairville, lacquered in sepia with something rotting inside.
A delightfully nasty bit of business, “Sweet Virginia” eases into the place like settling into a bath at molasses in how decadently cinematographer Jessica Lee Gagne (“Sarah Prefers to Run”) shows the fateful night where it all went wrong for Lilah as well as her friend Bernie (Rosemarie DeWitt), whose husbands were in the wrong restaurant at the wrong time when Elwood comes to town. Neither of the two women were happy in their marriages, so grief is hard to come by for both, but desperation is plentiful – in Lilah’s case, financial, and in Bernie’s, romantic, as she treads carefully in transitioning from an affair with Sam (Jon Bernthal), a local motel owner, into a possible relationship with him.
Elwood stays at Sam’s motel, complicating matters and while Lilah has no money, Bernie, whose husband tucked away cash from years of evading taxes, makes her an ongoing target. But in “Sweet Virginia,” the crimes committed happen so bluntly that it is how the film’s characters process them that becomes most intriguing, with a reticent hero emerging in Sam, a former star of the Roanoke Rodeo who no longer has the desire or physical wherewithal to confront those who are up to no good that are drawn to his place of business until Elwood’s arrival forces his hand.
Following his debut “River,” about a doctor turned fugitive when attempting to help the victim of a sexual assault, Dagg shows an interest once more in the trouble that comes with intervening in criminal affairs and brings a patient and steady hand to Paul and Benjamin China’s devilishly conceived modern noir. The film drips with tension, often creeping up on its characters before unanticipated explosions of violence, but part of the surprise of “Sweet Virginia” comes from its cast, a strong ensemble of actors in parts you’ve never seen them in before.
While Bernthal was seemingly born to play the world-weary Sam, physically imposing but a shell of his former self, DeWitt and Poots both turn their natural warmth into a curdled congeniality, running through the motions of their mundane lives so as not to attract attention, but the wheels always turning elsewhere. Abbott is particularly unnerving as Elwood, who strips people down with perversely curious lines of questioning before going in for the kill – often literally, and rather than play him as a typical brute, the actor’s inspired performance relies on small tics as opposed to shows of strength to make his point. However, taken as a whole, “Sweet Virginia” is as strong and sturdy an entertainment as they come, a deliberately paced thriller that quickens the pulse.
“Sweet Virginia” was acquired by IFC Films for distribution later this year.