Sweet Virginia (2017)

Sweet Virginia first published by RealCrime Magazine

The twin China Brothers had their debut, the Coen-esque Australia-set thriller Crawl, in 2011, with Paul on writing/directing duties and Benjamin producing. In 2012 their follow-up spec script Sweet Virginia, with its superficially similar scenario of a hired killer creating chaos in a small town, was near the top of the Hollywood Black List of excellent unproduced screenplays – and now it has been directed by Jamie M. Dagg as a moody neo-noir interested as much in its damaged characters as in the mechanics of its several crimes.

You can see the wear and tear on Sam Rossi (Jon Bernthal), a softly spoken, bearded motel manager in a nowhere Alaskan town, his limp and trembling hands marking the legacy of his former life as a Virginia rodeo champ. “You’re a good man,” his lover Bernadette (Rosemarie DeWitt) tells him – though the way he hides the picture of his estranged wife and daughter whenever Bernadette comes round, or his furtiveness when he visit her, betrays his own broken sense of guilt. Bernadette carries a burden of guilt too, as she is afflicted with nightmares about her long-time, barely loved husband Tom (Joseph Lyle Taylor), recently shot dead execution-style along with two other men in a bar. Only Bernadette’s friend Lila (Imogen Poots), who arranged the hit on her own cheating husband Mitchell (Jonathan Tucker), seems to lack any moral compunction about the consequences and collateral damage of her actions. 

Circling all these people is Elwood (Christopher Abbott), the hitman hired from out of town. While he waits impatiently to get paid, this deeply angry manchild – with damage of his own – is staying at the ‘Sweet Virginia’ motel, where he briefly bonds with his polar opposite Sam. “What goes around comes around,” says Elwood in a diner with Sam, describing the deadly comeuppance that awaited his father in jail for shooting a judge. It may just be the karmic bottom line of a story in which ultimately the wicked go punished and the good receive simple rewards – and yet along the way, several innocent bystanders are killed, Bernadette openly questions whether her husband has gone to Heaven, and a rifle taken non-violently by Sam’s grandfather from a Nazi soldier in the Second World War is now used to shoot a man in the back. Here the workings of morality are murky and mysterious – and Dagg, bringing the brand of taut suspense that he developed in his debut River (2015), carefully puts all the players and elements in place, while still building a nerve-wracking uncertainty as to where and how the tensions will eventually play out. It is a carefully paced affair, leaving all the characters plenty of space to breathe. Bernthal and Abbott are electric as two very different men weighed down by their histories. 

© Anton Bitel