Thursday, November 16, 2017

Jamie M. Dagg's sophomore effort, SWEET VIRGINIA: good cast, good score, so-so movie

SWEET VIRGINIA, the second full-length feature from director Jamie M. Dagg, bears more than a passing resemblance to this year's much better mystery, Wind River. For starters, Jon Bernthal acts in both: here in the leading role, in Wind River playing a supporting part. Both take place in out-of-the-way locations and feature a murder mystery at their center.

But in Wind River, the theme of justice is paramount; Sweet Virginia, a much more manufactured concoction, is content to connect its dots via the father of the film's "villain" being a big fan of its hero, an injured-and-thus-retired rodeo cowboy named Sam Rossi. The connection is tenuous at best, silly at worst.

So be it. And since we must, in all fairness, deal with what we have, Sweet Virginia does offers a number of pluses. Director Dagg, shown at left, has assembled an excellent cast, a good musical score (by brothers Brooke and Will Blair), and a number of scenes that pack in enough suspense, mystery and drama to keep us hooked.

The biggest problem -- other than there seems to be no ongoing investigation by authorities of the triple murder that begins the movie (one scene, hell, even one shot, of something like this might have set our minds to rest) -- is the exceedingly coincidental quality of the tale told here.

That cast, though, is a very good one. Led by Mr. Bernthal, above -- who currently seems to be the go-to guy for "strong silent type" roles and is here able to communicate with few words a depth of feeling and caring that helps considerably in keeping us attached to the wobbly plot -- it also includes another excellent and upcoming young actor in the role of Bernthal's ambivalent antagonist,  Christopher Abbott (shown below) of Hello I Must Be Going and James White.

Our hero's main squeeze, a lately widowed woman, is played by the fine Rosemarie DeWitt, below, while the always interesting Imogen Poots (two photos down) has the role of the character who sets the story in motion: a three-year unhappily married woman (also recently widowed by that multiple murder) who does not, it turns out, possess a whole lot of smarts or morals. The women, as so often happens in American movies, play a distinct second fiddle to the guys.

The screenplay and dialog for Sweet Virginia were written by twin brothers Benjamin and Paul China, and the Chinas prove good at plot machinations without undue exposition -- even if, as noted above, those machinations soon begin to seem more manufactured than organic. (I did miss some of the mumbled dialog toward the beginning of the film, however. I suspect this was due less to the actors than to the sound quality of the streaming link we critics were sent, in which ambient sound and musical score occasionally overpowered dialog.)

The very dark cinematography, coupled to the location shooting (said to be Alaska but filmed in British Columbia), the musical score, and low-key performances of characters who are themselves all pretty dark and unhappy, combine to bring a finale that features some violence and blood (but not enough to qualify as gore).

From IFC Films and running a just-about-right 93 minutes, Sweet Virginia opens theatrically tomorrow in New York City at the IFC Center, (and maybe elsewhere, too), as well as simultaneously via VOD. 

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