I watched this movie for the first time during the pandemic and it left quite an impression on me. In a time when we were all feeling so disconnected it immersed me into someone else’s life effortlessly. I was wondering if the same thing was going to happen when I watch it next time. And sure enough, it fucking did. Sweet Virginia is a highly immersive and simmering neo-noir thriller about a motel owner who finds himself in the middle of a murder plot. It feels like one of those classic noir movies from the seventies, trying to capture that Americana zeitgeist.
After a powerful opening scene, we settle into a slower and more voyeuristic pacing. This enables you to take in everything you see and hear with extra attention. And then we meet our protagonist, Sam Rossi, smoking a bit of weed as soon as he wakes up to soothe his old injuries. You see, Sam was a rodeo champ who now runs a small motel in an even smaller town. A town surrounded by imposing mountains and piercing green forests. A perfect place for a ruthless hitman to lay low. And you can see how the ingredients in this pressure cooker are starting to mix together.
Featuring stylish cinematography, realistic script, and authentic characters, Sweet Virginia is definitely a movie worth watching. A beautiful little piece of neo-noir escapism that’s going to stay with you long after you’ve seen it. The story is not taking place in Virginia but in Alaska. Sweet Virginia is actually the name of the motel our rodeo champ is running. It’s funny how in retrospect the story seems a bit predictable but while you’re watching it, it seems completely open-ended. It’s this ambiguity stemming from authentic characters that confused a lot of people.
Moreover, some of them were even “professional movie reviewers”. They’re always looking for a certain kind of narrative and are willing to jump at a movie that dares to be different. And while our protagonist Sam Rossi is a straightshooter, Elwood, the hitman is a wild card. He’s unpredictably authentic and represents a certain kind of man. I hope you haven’t run into him yet because he’s real nasty. There’s a rule running on a loop in his head at all times. It stems from the brutally animalistic tribal system of values where he’s always trying to be this “tough man”.
Something along the lines of: “Oh he thinks he’s better than me, he thinks I’m a pussy, I’m not a pussy, I’ll show him…” His moments of weakness come only when he conjures them into existence to blow off some of that steam that’s constantly building up in him. And some of that inner dialogue spills into reality at certain times. Like when he sees two guys just chilling in a parking lot. The dynamic between him and Sam is fascinating. Elwood sees Sam as a father figure amplified by his small celebrity status.
On top of that, he would like to be like him, to effortlessly attract people, especially women. Man, some men just have it. They have the looks, the mannerisms, and the personality that makes women naturally gravitate towards them. I’m sure you remember those guys from high school. It’s not like they’re trying, stuff just happens to them organically. And then you have the other guys. I think that perhaps, if we look at the big picture, it’s the intent that separates these two individuals. Sam’s actions are natural consequences of his values and further reaffirm him as a “true masculine man”.
Suffering is a huge and integral part of that identity. And he suffers both physically and emotionally. However, he carries that suffering silently, without bothering anyone with it. Just think of Clint Eastwood characters and you’ll know what I mean. As someone who thinks he broke through the veil of this system of values, I found it quite intriguing that I was so drawn to the character of both Sam and Elwood. Christopher Abbott, who plays Elwood, seemed off at first. I thought his performance was heavy-handed and awkward. However, during my second run, I realized what he was trying to do.
Of course, Sweet Virginia is another Jon Bernthal one-man show. He’s just such a good actor and he’s constantly picking these intriguing projects. Lately, I’ve seen him in a phenomenal television show We Own This City, period adventure Pilgrimage, and indie classic Small Engine Repair. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention Imogen Poots and Rosemarie DeWitt who were also excellent. Finally, If you’re looking for movies like Sweet Virginia, I recommend you check out our Small Town Crime Movies selection.
Director: Jamie M. Dagg
Writers: Paul China, Benjamin China
Cast: Jon Bernthal, Christopher Abbott, Imogen Poots, Rosemarie DeWitt, Jonathan Tucker
Fun Facts: The rifle that’s hanging in Sam Rossi’s motel Sweet Virginia is a Karabiner 98k, a standard service rifle by the German Wehrmacht. However, for unknown reasons, the rifle changes to VZ-33 Czech Mauser towards the end of the movie. Sweet Virginia is also a movie that perfectly demonstrates the so-called Chekhov’s Gun.