Let’s take a moment to appreciate Jon Bernthal. Since his two-season stint as Shane Walsh on The Walking Dead ended, the actor has consistently turned in stellar performances. It warms my heart to see Bernthal appear more frequently in film and “television” (The Punisher), and 2017 has been his greatest year so far. With films such as Baby Driver and Wind River to go along with his new, highly-anticipated Netflix series, that’s a relatively easy assessment to make. The guy is a powerhouse, and in the case of SWEET VIRGINIA, he showcases a brooding silence that matches the film in tone and story.
Distributed by the typically reliable IFC Films, SWEET VIRGINIA was directed by Jamie M. Dagg (River) from a script by brothers Benjamin and Paul China. The film tells the story of a former rodeo champion turned motel owner and a young man with violent tendencies who cross paths and form an unspoken bond. A quiet thriller with an undercurrent of intensity and jarring violence, Dagg’s film, though conventional in plot, is executed in such brilliantly natural fashion that, at times, it feels less like a movie than it does real life. The end of the film, especially, feels true to the understated tone of SWEET VIRGINIA and the lifestyle of its lead character.
As mentioned, Jon Bernthal is perfect in this film. The actor never once undersells the soft-spoken aspect of the character, nor does he lay the inner turmoil on too thick. Fortunately, the quality of the performance is matched across the board, by Christopher Abbott in particular. Abbott has starred in what are, for my money, two of 2017’s greatest films: SWEET VIRGINIA and It Comes at Night. Here, he’s playing a character who harbors an uncontrollable amount of rage beneath his mysterious persona, and in the moments in which that rage is unleashed, he can be damn frightening.
The women of SWEET VIRGINIA are stellar as well, even if their characters aren’t explored quite as deeply as the two leads. Imogen Poots has been an underrated actress for several years now, and there’s a particular scene in which her world crashes down around her that she OWNS with the horrified expression on her face, and especially in her eyes. Rosemarie DeWitt, too, is excellent. Her character is complicated and flawed, but there’s an undying strength and sweetness that effectively draws viewers in her direction. Credit must also be given to Odessa Young, who, while not being as prominently featured as the other actors and actresses, manages to connect her character to that of Jon Bernthal, establishing a father/daughter-like relationship that allows his complexity to shine. Young is incredible, even if her character solely exists for that purpose.
SWEET VIRGINIA didn’t present any flaws that I took issue with. It may lose points for its lack of originality, but Dagg’s film is certainly a top-tier version of this familiar story. The tension and atmosphere are unwavering throughout the runtime, events unfold in a believable way, and the performances demand admiration. It might not make a lot of noise, but SWEET VIRGINIA is one of the year’s greatest films.
SWEET VIRGINIA will arrive in select theaters November 17