Cinepocalypse 2017: Sweet Virginia (2017 - dir. Jamie M. Dagg)


Sweet Virginia has a dark story. It's plot is of the Coen variety, a puzzle of infidelity, sociopaths, murder-for-hire, life insurance schemes and people who unwittingly bring hell crashing down upon their heads. None of the small-town Alaska residents who populate Sweet Virginia are happy. The best they can hope for is to get by and not become one of the innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire. It's a dark story. But it's also just a dark movie, one bathed in shadows. Perhaps too many shadows.

In a visual style that could be charitably characterized as bold, director Jamie M. Dagg and cinematographer Jessica Lee Gagné flood most the entire film with darkness. Even scenes in broad daylight manage to cloak character's faces in the shade. Sometimes this is effective. The meager, naturally lit worlds of these characters sets a strong mood, a look into their defeated inner lives. Later in the film when the paranoia ramps up the audience is forced to scour every shadow in every corner of the frame, dreading the next inevitable explosion of violence. But it's also a severe hindrance on many basic levels. When you can't see a character's face well that's a barrier to empathy and connecting to them. When you can't see a character's face well mumbled lines of dialogue (which abound in this world of reserved unemotive people) become much harder to make out. When you can't see a character's face well the subtle secrets and motivations they hide from each other (basically the basis of the entire story) can be lost. The nuance of actors' performances is lost. There is a lot of simple storytelling in Sweet Virginia that is obfuscated by it's lighting. Perhaps this was an attempt to capture the particular genus of sunlight of the notoriously long days of Alaskan summers. Dagg has cited cinematographer Gordon Parks's work with Alan Pakula on 70's thrillers like Klute and The Parallax View as an inspiration. Whatever is gained, much more is lost.

Which perhaps wouldn't be such a problem if there wasn't such an overwhelming feeling of déjà vu. The economic recession has brought with it a renewed interest in westerns and neo-noirs of a sort as audiences begin to worry about self-reliance, stability and the threat of certain strains of societal collapse. Every other month there is a new entry in the increasingly crowded sub-genre and the successful ones, like Blue Ruin or Hell or High Water, live or die on the characters and compelling details that color their margins. Sweet Virginia is too conventional to have much of an identity of it's own. What does work are the performances. Jon Bernthal plays against type as a reserved man, left partially disabled from his former life as a rodeo bull-rider, who doesn't want any trouble. Chris Abbot crafts an unusual type of antagonist, a sociopathic and possibly on the spectrum hitman whose socially maladjusted fidgeting is likely way more common in your life than the inhuman Anton Chigurh types of most crime films. Both are quite good. If you already know you like this kind of movie, Sweet Virginia is another one for you. Just make sure to see it in a theater you know has good projection. It's the only way you'll be able to see anything at all.

Sweet Virginia opens in limited release November 17th.