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Yes, Sweet Virginia, There is a Santa Claus!

November 20, 2017

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Big-budget Hollywood blockbusters mostly bore me to sleep. In the past few weeks, I’ve taken naps during Kenneth Branagh’s well-appointed but deeply unnecessary remake of Murder on the Orient Express and Zack Snyder’s less-than-super Justice League (Thor: Ragnarok was better, but why has Chris Hemsworth’s Norse god headlined three movies while Mark Ruffalo’s incredibly endearing Hulk hasn’t earned a single stand-alone?) I’m more excited these days by wildly creative low-budget indies like Lady Bird, The Florida Project, Mr. Roosevelt and now Sweet Virginia.

If you haven’t heard of it — and you probably haven’t, as it was quietly released in one theater and on VOD over the weekend — Sweet Virginia is a lean, mean thriller that brilliantly casts the often-brutal Jon Bernthal against type as a mild-mannered Alaska motel owner who crosses paths with a deadly stranger, magnetically embodied by Christopher Abbott. (When Abbott left Girls after its first season, I thought he was nuts to ditch such a red-hot show, but that decision is looking wiser and wiser all the time.)

Turns out Abbott’s character is a hit man who was hired by a disgruntled wife (Imogen Poots, in her strongest performance to date) to knock off her cheating husband. The only problem is, the heel was also broke, and the client was counting on his inheritance to pay off the killer. Complicating matters is the fact that the contract killer also murders the husband of a woman (the always-underrated Rosemarie DeWitt) who’s having an affair with Bernthal’s ex-rodeo rider.

Director Jamie M. Dagg (River) wrings maximum tension out of the script by brothers Benjamin and Paul China, who originally set the story in 1970s Virginia. The period details proved too expensive, so Dagg moved it to present-day Alaska, but the film still has a ’70s feel to it — it’s gritty and minimalistic like so many of that decade’s best movies. (Bernthal’s character hails from the Old Dominion and has dubbed his hotel Sweet Virginia.) Dagg mostly keeps his camera still, letting characters walk in and out of frame, creating an unspoken suspense that’s sometimes almost unbearable.

When Bernthal, whose character could be a spiritual cousin of Willem Dafoe’s kindly innkeeper in The Florida Project, finally erupts into violence, it’s a profoundly dramatic catharsis. Yet Virginia ends on a surprisingly sweet note with a simple scene that requires no dialogue. If there’s any justice, moviegoers will discover this quiet gem over the holidays. Without a superhero in sight, it’s in a league of its own.

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