It’s easy to see why the dark and shadowy world of film noir remains an attractive avenue for filmmaking. Exploring a world filled with sex, sin and the possibility of redemption shows us at our best and our worst. Based on a 2012 Black List script, director Jamie M. Dagg’s Sweet Virginia takes a stab at neo-noir by returning to the world of the 1940s in tone and atmosphere. The experiment isn’t wholly successful in narrative execution and often feels either overly familiar or underdeveloped structurally, but a solid cast and a loving reverence for the past keeps it from being a total loss.
A small town is rocked when three men are murdered in a bar. The killer, a mysterious man named Elwood (Christopher Abbott) is determined to get his hands on money owed him by the widow (Imogen Poots) of one of the murdered men. With Elwood stuck in the local motel he has little to do but interact with its owner, Sam (Jon Bernthal), a man wracked with demons from his past.
Trenchcoats and fedoras may not be in vogue anymore, but the noir trappings remain easily discerned in Sweet Virginia. The script, attributed to brothers Benjamin and Paul China, is one steeped in classic noir references. A triple homicide opens up a story involving a shadowy hitman and a murder plot involving a beleaguered wife ripped straight from Double Indemnity. In fact, Elwood and Poots’ Lila meeting near a waterfall seems like a direct callback to Niagara, itself an obvious reference point in the film. These things all evoke a specific mood, and even when the film falls short of its mark, it’s worthwhile to see someone try their hardest to call back to movies they enjoy.
Homage aside, the film wastes little time in setting up its central premise. The crime is committed within the first two minutes and the rest of the 105-minute runtime revolves around four central characters negotiating the fallout of the murder in their own way. In fact, the crime element is probably Sweet Virginia’s least interesting plot. The film shows its hand fairly early by detailing who set up the murder and why. From there it’s fairly easily to set up where the weakness in the house of cards will come from and the film’s overall trajectory. There’s little mystery derived.
Abbott tries his hand at playing a murderous villain, but it never works completely. A strong noir villain should be larger than life, regardless of frame and that’s not Abbott. He’s far from intimidating, and at times his quiet demeanor and conversations with himself seem to imply he might be autistic. Creepiness is Abbott’s forte and that comes through best in his bizarre attempts to befriend Sam. An extended conversation between the two in a diner hearkens back to something like No Country for Old Men, if everything was just desperately off-kilter.
Elwood’s blunt questioning and awkward attempts to be likeable are far more effective than his tendencies towards violence. This could explain why the finale feels more anti-climactic; Elwood just never seems particularly dominating. The same can be said of poor Imogen Poots, whose character mimics cold dames with murderous intentions, but is left as little more than an idiot who didn’t know her husband. The script quickly removes her from the narrative, giving her a hasty send-off at the end.
The script is at its strongest and most compelling when showing Elwood’s effect on Sam and his adulterous relationship with the widow (played by Rosemarie DeWitt) of one of the murdered men. More commonly known for playing bruisers, Bernthal gets a chance to show his much underutilized sensitive side. Sam’s character is another noir staple – that of the haunted hero seeking redemption. The script gives him a rodeo-tinged past and a family who aren’t around (whether by choice or demise is never stated). The lack of a deeper history keeps the character mired on the surface, but Bernthal and DeWitt have some wonderful sequences together that do much towards making the movie memorable.
Despite its faults there’s a desire to create a modern-day film noir within Sweet Virginia. The script is a bit too lacking in creating fleshed-out characters in favor of telling a standard murder for hire story with a villain who never fully connects with the audience. The cast is engaging, particularly Bernthal, so if you’re a fan of neo noir it’s worth a cursory inspection.