Having been a huge fan of Jon Bernthal from first seeing him be that righteous dark horse Shane in The Walking Dead and the fantastic Punisher in Daredevil as well as lots of other smaller roles I was interested to see him cast as the lead in Jamie M. Dagg’s new film. Here, he is less of a dominating presence showing a vulnerable side and playing against type. It’s impressive to see an actor play down their size as we see him be emasculated verbally by hotel guests or on the losing side of brawls.
Sweet Virginia opens with a triple murder in a bar and then explores the impact this has on the wives and rest of the small town. Bernthal plays Sam an old rodeo who has taken one too many falls and slowly developing on set Parkinson’s. He now runs a motel where he meets the strangely charismatic Elwood who we recognise as being the killer from the motel. Through this temporary friendship we learn nuggets about both of them although we wonder if anything Elwood says is actually true. Through they build a tenuous friendship we know that it won’t last and there is only darkness on the horizon.
After the film Dagg explained in the Q&A that he cut around thirty plus pages out of the script before shooting and this streamlining has really worked, Instead of dialogue heavy sob stories we get hints of motive and sketchings of previous lives from characters. A sentence rather than a paragraph, a facial expression rather than a statement. This economisation of the script keeps things tight and focussed on the story and those who live in it.
A masterful deep cello-laden score sits on top of meticulous cinematography both working sublimely together to pile on the tension throughout. As an audience we’re never at peace, constantly wary that violence can break into any scene. The low light cinematography places huge pools of darkness for our minds to wander and be drawn into, and intense close ups of Jon Bernthal’s tired and grizzly bearded face convey more than reams of dialogue could.
While the bare bones of the story are laid out for us there are moments where we watch characters drift and make their own paths through it. Sometimes it’s just to go about their day, sometimes for conflict, sometimes with the anticipation of conflict. Each character has their own demons: some born out of the past, some out of their own actions. Again and again we see the outcomes of decisions that characters make in Sweet Virginia and from that we learn so much more about them. In an extraordinary one take shot we follow Elwood drive through the small town, park and, on his way to use a payphone to verbally threaten who hired him, manage to start even more violence with two men who just happen to be in his way. While it’s clear from the offset that he is unstable this scene reinforces just how fragile he is, reacting to perceived phantom threats wildly and closing the door to any hope we had for a peaceful ending.
For more on the Edinburgh International Film Festival and it’s remaining programme click here.