Sweet Virginia

‘Sweet Virginia’ Review: Brooding Nonsense

'Sweet Virginia'

Movie Rating:


‘Sweet Virginia’ wants to traffic in genre thrills and violence, but also wants you to take it very, very seriously and not enjoy those things. Even though violence in the real world is bad, thrillers and crime dramas have been enshrined in pop culture entertainment for so long that it can be a bit much when a movie punishes you for liking the same thrills it promises.

That effect can be pulled off wonderfully in genre-benders like this year’s ‘Three Billboards’. However, oftentimes you end up with a movie like ‘Sweet Virginia’, an exercise in terse crime movie misery so lacking in substance or purpose that it’s just a deeply frustrating experience. This movie is a thriller without the thrills, and with extra punishment doled out for audiences who show up for said thrills.

The movie is allegedly about the horrors that violence inflicts on all those it touches. The story opens with a salacious and brutal triple murder. We follow the killer, Elwood (Christopher Abbott), more than the victims. From there, the film slowly revels in the aftermath of the homicides. Bernadette (Rosemarie DeWitt) was left widowed by the crime. That obviously hurts, but it helps that she was already carrying on an affair with a former rodeo star turned sad-sack motel owner named Sam (Jon Bernthal, fresh off ‘The Punisher’). Imogen Poots pops up as another widow, Lila. She’s oddly calm about the whole thing. It turns out she was involved. She wanted out of a bad marriage and, more importantly, wanted the money. Unfortunately, she also planned to pay for the murder with the insurance money and that’ll take time, which is not good news when a killer needs cash, especially one who decided to kill two extra people to cover his tracks. Because the movie is filled with conveniently tragic coincidences, Elwood is also staying at Sam’s motel. The first thing he notices when he checks in is an old gun on the wall that Sam has never fired. Hmmm… That’s a big coincidence too, isn’t it?

What’s most frustrating about the punishing slog of ‘Sweet Virginia’ is the fact that it’s actually rather well directed in a neo-noir manner by Jamie M. Dagg and wastes a fantastic cast. Unsurprisingly, Bernthal does well as a brooding small town burnout for whom so much has gone wrong despite his firm grasp of justice. Rosemarie DeWitt is easily one of the most underappreciated actresses working. She’s wonderful and gives a layered performance despite being saddled with a role that doesn’t deserve her. Imogen Poots is fine as the naïf who done wrong and knows it. Only Christopher Abbot’s twitchy portrayal of madness rings false on a performance level. (To be fair, he was asked to deliver so much improbable hard-boiled dialogue that he almost couldn’t help but fail.) Everyone does their job and the film has just the right dreary, rigid photography to feel atmospheric and stylish. There’s a lot going right for ‘Sweet Virginia’. Too bad the script that all the talented people lined up for didn’t quite work.

Debut twin scribes Benjamin and Paul China just can’t seem to decide if they consider their movie art or pulp. The characters names and backstories are too ridiculous to be taken seriously, yet every word they utter is somehow overwritten and too simplistic. No dramatic beat is particularly surprising (especially when dragged on endlessly). Worst of all, the script’s arty pretentions constantly undermine any fun or entertainment that might accidentally slip onto the screen.

‘Sweet Virginia’ is an absolute slog to get through, which is one quality no crime movie should have. Even though everyone involved was talented and meant well, they signed onto the wrong former-rodeo-star-turned-figure-of-vengeance thriller. It’s hard to believe any movie with that logline could somehow turn out pretentious and boring, but here we are.

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