Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Talking Tribeca: Sweet Virginia

I’ve had the pleasure of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place April 19th-April 30th.

Sweet Virginia
Directed by Jamie M. Dagg
Festival Screenings

Crime dramas seem to be particularly effective when set in small towns where people are used to leaving their doors unlocked and granting enormous trust to strangers. It’s not that they manage to make people feel unsafe since letting their guard down to the wrong people can have disastrous, fatal consequences, but instead that there’s a quiet calm to that kind of setting which makes the arrival of disruptive forces all the more intense and chilling, creating the opportunity for a strong instance of a genre that’s hard to do well but very rewarding when it succeeds: the thriller.

In the film’s first scene, three employees at a bar are killed late one night by hitman Elwood (Christopher Abbott). Eager for payment, Elwood extends his stay in town to collect from one of the dead men’s widows, Lila (Imogen Poots), who hired him to kill just her husband. The other widow, Bernadette (Rosemarie DeWitt), continues the affair she was already having with Sam (Jon Bernthal), a former rodeo champ who just happens to be the owner of the motel where Elwood is staying, creating a web of connections that only serve to complicate matters as Elwood grows impatient waiting for money that Lila may not in the end have.

It’s easy to draw comparisons, as others already have, between this film and those made by the Coen brothers, though it’s worth noting that this film contains far less humor. There are brief moments that might produce a chuckle or two, but this is otherwise a fully serious drama featuring very flawed characters who are stuck in cycles of activity that they can’t seem to escape no matter how much – or little – they try. This film earns the classification of thriller thanks to an extraordinary command of suspense, differentiated from cheap scares thanks to purposeful cinematography and a very deliberate structuring of its more intense and breathless scenes.

This cast is truly top-notch, and all four of the main players get their chance to shine. Abbott is the one who appears to have received the best reviews for his excellent turn as the mostly asocial hitman who proactively strikes up a friendship with Sam, well-portrayed by Bernthal, far more subdued than in his energetic role on “The Walking Dead.” DeWitt and Poots are both great in supporting parts that function crucially on their own and in their interactions with the men in their lives, both their deceased husbands – Jonathan Tucker makes a mark in the first scene – and the ones they are left with after their deaths. This is a solid, enthralling thriller that represents the genre well and is surely one of the top Tribeca picks this year.


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