A twisty, small-town thriller that blooms in the shadows and shies from the light, “Sweet Virginia” marshals a relentlessly threatening mood from dangerous secrets and unpleasant surprises.
The first of these shocks occurs immediately, as a late-night card game explodes into a triple murder. The perpetrator, a restive stranger we will come to know as Elwood (played with chilling unpredictability by Christopher Abbott), has dark business with Lila (Imogen Poots), the young wife of one of the victims.
Waiting to conclude that transaction, Elwood washes up in a motel owned by Sam (Jon Bernthal), a onetime rodeo star limping after too many falls and trembling with the early signs of Parkinson’s disease. Gentle and melancholy, Sam mutes his demons with routine and a long-term affair with a married neighbor (Rosemarie DeWitt, fabulous). And then Elwood invites him to dinner.
Trailer: ‘Sweet Virginia’
Set in a remote Alaskan valley (softly photographed in British Columbia by the cinematographer Jessica Lee Gagné), “Sweet Virginia” is a quiet knife-twister in which atmosphere and performance are everything. The story (by the twin brothers Benjamin and Paul China) is flimsy and the characters have just enough heft to keep the gears of the plot clicking. Accumulating suspense from the inevitability of a final showdown, the director, Jamie M. Dagg, uses long takes and uncluttered setups that leave his actors room to flex.
And they do, especially Mr. Bernthal, who gives Sam an aw-shucks friendliness that belies the strength behind his wounded body language. From the moment he and Elwood meet, they’re familiar trains — the lone gunman and the broken-down hero — running on tracks whose intersection is preordained.