In Jamie Dagg’s quiet noir Western Sweet Virginia, characters live in darkened homes behind drawn curtains and blinds they open only a thin inch. Beyond their moody abodes looms the breathtaking backdrop of mountainous Alaskan terrain, but these are people too preoccupied with their secrets to look up. The story follows a handful of townsfolk who are rocked by the triple homicide of three men, paid for by neglected wife Lila (Imogen Poots), whose husband is one of the victims. The murderer she’s hired, Elwood (Christopher Abbott), holes up in a local motel run by Sam (Jon Bernthal), a gentle former rodeo star who happens to be having an affair with the wife of another of the victims. The concepts Sweet Virginia explores through this setup — lives intersecting after a tragedy in a small town and a dangerous outsider tearing through a community — aren’t new for noir or Westerns, but the understated, intense performances of Dagg’s cast make this slow burner a standout.
Abbott plays the amoral sociopath Elwood as something of a curious trickster who searches out his prey’s greatest weaknesses before pulling the trigger. The actor also had the mysterious-stranger role in this year’s horror breakout It Comes at Night, and his turn here is equally creepy. In the opening scene, Elwood strolls into a bar after hours and plops down in a booth. The three men trying to play cards nearby demand he leave. Elwood’s response: Ordering a breakfast special, again and again, leaving the three men bewildered. “I can’t leave. I’m hungry,” Elwood states, as innocent as a kid asking why he has to go to bed. Elwood soon shoots all three men dead, but it’s Abbott’s blank stare and that childish tone that truly frightened me.
We find that Lila had paid only for her husband’s murder and is shocked into a kind of cowering stupor when she finds the men he was with are dead, too. As in so many noirs, Lila can’t pay off Elwood until the insurance money comes through, and when she meets Elwood on a secluded trail to tell him this, he’s not mad, just unnervingly impatient and ready to stick around town until he gets his cash. He then inexplicably asks Lila on a date, and her reaction is marked by cautious abhorrence — don’t trust the man who just murdered for money.
While Elwood is a sociopathic monster, his curiosity is endearing to Sam, who’s a kind of nurturer. When Sam’s lover Bernadette (Rosemarie DeWitt) asks him where her now-deceased husband is, he answers simply, “I think he’s in heaven.” Bernthal looks as if he could be Abbott’s father, or at least older uncle, in real life, but the two play off one another as polar opposites in mannerisms and speech patterns. While Elwood is jumpy and kinetic, Sam has a kind of graceful lumber and often lowers his head thoughtfully before uttering a soulful remark.
Dagg films the story so darkly (literally) that we often only get glimpses of characters’ faces and bodies as they move through a room. At one point, I thought I was looking at a completely black screen until a shadow passed through, a visual gag that can be frustrating when it’s not ratcheting the tension, inviting you to wonder what — or who — is in the shadows. But Dagg’s hard-boiled dialogue and characters compel you to enter these rooms, even as you question what it is you’ll find lurking there.