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Marina Antunes [Celluloid 10.02.17] Canada thriller drama

For his feature film debut, writer/director Jamie M. Dagg made an impression with the Laos based thriller River (trailer) which won him a number of awards including the coveted Borsos Award for best Canadian Film at the Whistler Film Festival. For his follow up, Dagg has elevated his game with the simmering thriller Sweet Virginia.

Jon Bernthal ("The Walking Dead" and Netflix's upcoming "The Punisher") stars as Sam, a former rodeo champion who runs a motel called Sweet Virginia in small town Alaska. His and the town's quiet existence is shattered when three men are murdered at the town pub and while the investigation suggest the murders were a robbery gone wrong, the audience knows the culprit is Elwood (Christopher Abbott), an oddball stranger who has checked into the motel.

Paul and Benjamin China's script is full of intrigue and interesting turns but it mostly stays away from red herrings which is a nice change of pace for a thriller which starts by giving the audience more information than the characters have and then doesn't pull the rug out from under us partway through. The filmmakers commit to their approach and Sweet Virginia is all the better for it.

Though the culmination of events feels contrived and a little too coincidental, Sweet Virginia is better than its script. The movie really works because of Dagg, cinematographer Jessica Lee Gagne's work and exceptional performances from a talented cast.

Bernthal does brooding well and he elevates his game here with a performance that simmers at boiling point for nearly the entire running time but the real star is Abbott. He's not exactly new to playing the asshole but he easily surpasses himself here from the moment he first shows up on screen and, before even saying anything, comes across as someone who is jus a little unhinged. The women fare a little worse mostly because their characters aren't particularly well developed. Rosemarie DeWitt has the most to do and does it well but even she's mostly relegated to playing victim.

Dagg and returning editor Duff Smith, whose notable credits includes Hard Core Logo 2, The Husband and Weirdos, take Gagne's cinematography and the excellent performances and build a movie that is full of tension and constantly on the edge of violence so when it occasionally erupts, it comes as no surprise and though there's not a lot of violence, when Dagg goes there, he doesn't hold back.

Though the story is familiar and a bit contrived, Sweet Virginia manages to overcome its script limitations by some great technicality and a pair of memorable performances.

Sweet Virginia has been picked up by IFC Films and is due for limited release on November 17.

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Recommended Release: River

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