Dark Crime Drama Sweet Virginia Set in Small Alaskan Town
By GREG BEAUBIEN NOV. 3, 2017
“IMPERFECT PEOPLE CONFRONTING LIFE, LOVE AND DEATH,” is how director Jamie M. Dagg describes his new crime drama Sweet Virginia. The film, which had its Midwest premiere at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre Nov. 2 and goes into general release Nov. 17, tells the story of a stranger who arrives in an Alaskan town of mountainous pine forests to murder a cheating husband, hired by the man’s embittered wife.
The killer, Elwood (played by Christopher Abbott, who also stars in the 2017 horror movie It Comes at Night), is a dead-eyed drifter who speaks in a monotone grunt. He shoots the unfaithful husband in a restaurant after it has closed, and also kills two of the man’s friends who happened to be there with him. Lila, the scorned wife (British actress Imogen Poots) assures Elwood that she will pay his fee after collecting money from the estate of her husband, an entrepreneur. But when she meets with a lawyer, Lila learns that her late husband was bankrupt. “You know what will happen if I don’t get my money,” Elwood tells her.
One of the other men Elwood killed in the restaurant was married to Bernadette, a friend of Lila’s. Bernadette was cheating on her husband with Sam, a former rodeo champion who sustained too many head injuries. He now suffers hand tremors from early onset Parkinson’s disease and smokes marijuana every morning when he wakes up in the motel he runs, the “Sweet Virginia.”
Elwood is staying at the motel and befriends Sam (Jon Bernthal, above, who had roles in the TV show The Walking Dead and the movie Baby Driver), whom he recognizes from his glory days. Elwood somehow escapes the attention of local authorities searching for the restaurant killer, even after he beats up a couple of men in a parking lot.
The first half of the movie has a sluggish pace, but then Sweet Virginia finds its rhythm. Lila evades Elwood and his demands for payment, so he breaks into her house at night and assaults her, throwing her onto the stairs and pressing the muzzle of a revolver against her face. She tells him she knows where to get his money.
Lila betrays Bernadette (Rosemarie Dewitt, who played the Ryan Gosling character’s sister in La La Land) by telling Elwood about a hidden wall safe full of cash in her house. Elwood and a hired accomplice invade Bernadette’s home at night, but she fights back. The film’s climax occurs at daybreak the next morning, when Sam confronts a bleeding Elwood at the motel.
Sweet Virginia director Jamie M. Dagg, right, after a Nov. 2, 2017 screening at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre
Despite the natural beauty of the surroundings (the film was shot in British Columbia, standing in for Alaska), Sweet Virginia’s visuals are consistently muted and dark, conveying a mood of despair and hopelessness for its characters that is deepened by a groaning soundtrack. Asked why the characters’ faces were often obscured by shadows, Dagg told Moresby Press that he was influenced by the cinematography of the late Gordon Willis, who famously shot dark scenes in The Godfather films and in Woody Allen’s Manhattan, among many other pictures.
Sweet Virginia is Dagg’s second feature film, after River in 2015. A more seasoned director had told him, “Don’t wait around expecting to get the perfect script, because it’s not going to happen.” Dagg said the original script for Sweet Virginia (by Benjamin China and Paul China, British twins), started out much too long and far from ideal, but after tightening it up and introducing new ideas he was able to put his own stamp on the screenplay and become excited about it. Look for Dagg to continue developing his style and voice in more films to come.