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November 16, 2017

Sweet Virginia

sweet va.jpg

Jamie M. Dagg - 2017
IFC Films

The bar is closed with three friends playing an after hours card game. A man comes in requesting a drink or maybe even some food. The man is told in no uncertain terms to leave. The widescreen framing keeps the face of one of the card players on the right side of the screen. The viewer is fairly certain that the late night visitor is going to burst through the door seen on the left side of the same shot. The film switches over to roughly the point of view of the angry man who shoots the three men. It turns out this was a hit for hire with only one of the men as the intended victim. And the woman who did the hiring discovers that the money she assumed would be hers has been swallowed up in her husband's debts.

Sweet Virginia made me think of some of the stories of James Cain, best known for The Postman Always Rings Twice. The similarities are with the small town setting with characters just getting by, with characters whose misguided ambitions lead to unforeseen catastrophes. Much of the film takes place in and near a motel managed by Sam Russo, a former minor celebrity on the rodeo circuit. The motel is more a long term home for people down and out than for travelers. Much of the film takes place at night with the sense that some kind of violence will occur.

Sweet Virginia is so low key that in spirit it is close to the low budget films of the Forties and early Fifties, when nobody thought that the films made would be considered art, or even be viewed by future generations. The only moments of pretension are a couple of brief montages of Russo riding a bull in a Roanoke, Virginia rodeo. What mostly stays in mind are the shots of empty streets and parking lots, and a diner with more vacant tables than customers. The music by Brooke Blair and Will Blair is mournful, fitting as the small town is something of a dead end for people who seem to have no other place to go.

With British Columbia standing in for Alaska, there are a few scenic moments, such as when Lila, the woman who initiates the chain of events, meets with Elwood, the hitman, on a bridge overlooking a river. Unlike Dagg's previous film, River which took place in a rough and tumble Laos, Sweet Virginia is quieter and claustrophobic. Unlike too many films where the filmmakers feel the need to over-explain or underline their story, Jamie Dagg has the sense to stand back far enough to let the audience put the pieces together.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at November 16, 2017 07:45 AM