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Sweet Virginia movie

BLOODY DAYBREAK: Sam (Jon Bernthal) tries to quell his temors and stop a killer in Sweet Virginia. (IFC Films)


Director Jamie M. Dagg’s Crime Movie Sweet Virginia Shows Dark, Nascent Style

Film’s shadowy look influenced by work of Godfather cinematographer Gordon Willis, Dagg says

By JAKE SOMMERS   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, who was 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 (Jon Bernthal, who had roles in the TV show The Walking Dead and in the movie Baby Driver), a former rodeo champion who has 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, whom he recognizes from his glory days in the rodeo. Elwood somehow escapes the attention of local authorities who are searching for the restaurant killer, even after he beats up two 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 the movie 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.

Director Jamie Dagg interviewed at Music Box theatre in Chicago

‘Don’t wait around expecting to get the perfect script, because it’s not going to happen,’ Sweet Virginia director Jamie Dagg (right), tells PR manager Steve Prokopy after a Nov. 2, 2017 screening at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre. (Moresby Press photo)

Despite the natural beauty of the surroundings (the film was shot in British Columbia, standing in for Alaska), Sweet Virginia’s visuals are 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 was 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 in future films.


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Michael Shannon and Tracy Letts discuss William Friedkin's movie Bug at Chicago's Music Box Theatre, January 2020 Moresby Press photo

Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee of the band Rush perform at Alpine Valley Music Theatre in Wisconsin July 1981 photo by James Borneman

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