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REVIEW: Sweet Virginia

By Eric Hillis,

originally published: 11/22/2017

REVIEW: Sweet Virginia

Have you ever watched a movie and come away wishing it had focused its attention on one of its supporting characters? That’s the feeling I had after viewing director Jamie M Dagg’s Alaska set, noirish, contemporary western Sweet Virginia.

Dagg’s film opens with a moment of seemingly spontaneous violence, as a young man guns down three poker players after hours in a diner. We soon learn that the killing was premeditated. Well, not quite. The perpetrator, Elwood (Christopher Abbott), was hired to kill just one of the men, but decided it was easier to remove any loose ends. His employer is Lila (Imogen Poots), who promised Elwood $50,000 to murder her husband. Lila intends to pay Elwood out of the insurance money she expects to receive from her hubby’s death, but it turns out her other half was keeping his dire financial state a secret, and not only is Lila left out of pocket, but the bank is set to take her home. With a violent hitman expecting a cash payment, what’s the desperate Lila to do?

With this intriguing setup, you would expect Lila to be the central protagonist of the story, but Dagg’s film, penned by brothers Benjamin and Paul China, instead averts its gaze onto Sam (Jon Bernthal), a former rodeo star who now manages the motel where Elwood is hiding. While waiting for Lila to rustle up his fee, Elwood makes friends with the shy Sam, the two men awkwardly bonding over their Virginia backgrounds. Meanwhile Sam is romantically involved with Bernadette (Rosemarie DeWitt), the widow of one of Elwood’s victims.

As thrillers go, Sweet Virginia is commendably invested in exploring the psychology of its characters. Though the four main players are caught up in a typical genre narrative, every member of the quartet feels like a genuine person, and we empathize with them all to varying degrees.

Continuing the trend set by Willem Dafoe in The Florida Project, this film casts another actor known for playing villains as a kindly motel manager, and gives Bernthal his finest role to date. His Sam is the closest the film has to an out and out upright citizen, though he tortures himself for his role in his affair with Bernadette. Limping from an injury sustained during his rodeo days, he resembles one of those great broken down protagonists from a Sam Peckinpah movie.

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Bernadette is perhaps the most morally complex of the quartet, confessing she was unable to shed a tear over her husband’s death. The film never paints her deceased spouse in a bad light, which adds to the pathos of the scenario and Sam’s moral conflict. Though Lila is responsible for the deaths of three men, it’s difficult not to empathize with her because she seems to be keeping secrets about her husband’s treatment of her. Even the sinister Elwood is sympathetic to a degree, a socially awkward loner who makes long distance phone calls to his mother and has an attack of conscience late on, even though it could prove his downfall.

REVIEW: Sweet VirginiaWhile Dagg’s film may work better as a character study than a thriller, that’s not to say it doesn’t offer its share of thrills. Dagg fashions a couple of genuinely nail-biting sequences, with an extended scene in which Lila grows increasingly paranoid about the car that appears to be following her. Overall, Lila is sadly short-changed, fading into the background to such a degree that it almost feels like much of her footage was left on the cutting room floor, and at several points you may find yourself asking “What’s Lila doing right now?” I certainly found myself puzzled as to how someone like Lila came into contact with a hired killer in the first place.

Sweet Virginia is one of the most engrossing thrillers of recent years, but had it taken more time to explore the emotional turmoil and existential terror experienced by Lila, it could have been a modern classic. It seems an odd complaint in this era of bloated runtimes, but Sweet Virginia could have benefitted from another 30 minutes.

4  stars out of 5

Directed by: Jamie M Dagg

Starring: Jon Bernthal, Imogen Poots, Christopher Abbott, Rosemarie DeWitt

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State Theatre Presents Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back In Concert with NJSO
(NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ) -- State Theatre New Jersey and New Jersey Symphony Orchestra present Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back in concert with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra featuring Conductor Constantine Kitsopolous on Saturday January 6, 2019 at 3:00pm. Tickets range from $35-$125. 
The Morris Museum Brings Back Exhibition On Screen series
(MORRISTOWN, NJ) -- The Morris Museum brings back a film series from Exhibition on Screen beginning on Wednesday, December 12, 2018 with the feature film Degas: A Passion for Perfection.  Two additional films will also be shown: Young Picasso, on Wednesday, February 13, 2019 and Rembrandt on Wednesday, April 10, 2019.  All films will be screened at 7:30pm in the Bickford Theatre.  
A Look At New Jersey Film Festival Spring 2019
(NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ) -- The Rutgers Film Co-op/New Jersey Media Arts Center, in association with the Rutgers University Program In Cinema Studies, presents the New Jersey Film Festival Spring 2019 which marks the festival's 37th Anniversary.  The Festival will take place between January 25 and March 1, 2019. Showcasing new international films, American independent features, experimental and short subjects, classic revivals, and cutting-edge documentaries, the New Jersey Film Festival Spring 2019 will feature over 35 film screenings. 
NJPAC Presents Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix Live in Concert With The NJSO
(NEWARK, NJ) -- The Harry Potter Film Concert Series returns to New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) with Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix Live in Concert, on Saturday, June 1, 2019 at 2:00pm and 7:30pm. See the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra perform the magical score live while the entire film plays in high-definition on a 40-foot screen.
Kean Stage Hosts "White Christmas" Sing-Along
(UNION, NJ) -- Kean Stage hosts a White Christmas Sing-Along on Sunday, December 16 at 3:00pm.  Gather your family and friends for this beloved 1954 holiday film starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen. You’ll enjoy singing along to Count Your Blessings, Snow, Sisters and, of course, the iconic White Christmas. And don’t worry if you don’t know the words – the lyrics will be shown on the screen.

REVIEW: "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald"
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REVIEW: "Shoplifters"
Earlier this year, writer/director extraordinaire Hirokazu Kore-eda surprised us with The Third Murder, a legal thriller that made for a stark departure from the sentimental family dramas he’s become known for. With his Palme d’Or winning Shoplifters, Kore-eda is back on familiar ground, but this particular family drama shares much in common with The Third Murder. With his thriller, Kore-eda deconstructed the genre, forcing us to question how willingly we place our trust in a storyteller. Similarly, Shoplifters sees Kore-eda lull his audience into a false sense of security, making us develop a warmth and affection towards people who may not warrant such empathy.
REVIEW: "First Man"
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REVIEW: "Halloween"
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Event calendar
Thursday, Dec 13, 2018


PROJECT/OBJECT @ The Saint, Asbury Park - 7:00pm

JERRY BLAVAT @ Lobby Bar at Hard Rock Hotel and Casino Atlantic City, Atlantic City - 12:00pm

VIENNA BOYS CHOIR @ Bergen Performing Arts Center (bergenPAC), Englewood - 7:30pm

BRIAN FALLON @ Crossroads (Garwood), Garwood - 8:00pm

The Irish Tenors Holiday Celebration @ Count Basie Center For The Arts, Red Bank - 7:30pm

BREAKING BENJAMIN @ Starland Ballroom, Sayreville - 7:00pm


Elf, The Musical @ Surflight Theatre, Beach Haven - 2:00pm

An Actor's Carol @ Cape May Stage, Cape May - 7:30pm

Irving Berlin's Holiday Inn @ Paper Mill Playhouse, Millburn - 1:30pm and 7:00pm

Hudson Theatre Works presents "And My True Love Gave To Me" @ Hudson Theatre Works, Weehawken - 8:00pm


On the Map @ Pollak Theatre @ Monmouth University, West Long Branch - 7:30pm


Holiday Open Mic Night! @ Black Box Performing Arts Center, Teaneck - 7:30pm

View all events


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