Sunday, April 23, 2017

Tribeca ’17: Sweet Virginia

Perhaps it is time to rethink your dream of becoming a motelier in small town Alaska. It turns out that life is not all caviar and champagne. This is especially true for a nerve-damaged former rodeo star when a triple homicide stuns his sleepy burg. The killer happens to be sleeping in Sam Rossi’s sheets, so it is almost inevitable he will strike again uncomfortably close to home in Jamie M. Dagg’s Sweet Virginia, which screens during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.

Ironically, the Virginia-born hitman calling himself Elwood recognizes fellow Virginian Rossi from his rodeo days. You could say he is in town on business. Elwood is responsible for killing three men playing their regular late night poker game at Tom Barrett’s restaurant. He had only been contracted by Lila McCabe to kill her abusive, good-for-nothing husband, but Elwood does not like to wait. Unfortunately, he will have to, if he wants to collect his money.

As it turns out, her loving hubby did not reveal their real financial situation to McCabe. It’s not pretty. Neither is the state of her conscience, knowing that two other men died because of her. Bernadette Barrett is also in a strange emotional place. She is truly sorry her husband died, but her growing feelings for Rossi, with whom she has been secretly carrying on an affair, remain undiminished. As the Widows Barrett and McCabe console each other, Elwood grows restive, which bodes ill for the town.

Sweet Virginia (a holdover title from earlier drafts set in rural VA, which really doesn’t make much sense anymore) is being billed as a “neo-western,” which is becoming a catch-all label for small town anxiety. Despite a few killings, it is worlds removed from Hell or High Water. The best part of Sweet VA is the relationship between Rossi and Barrett, two people wounded by life, who have found a bit of respite together. Unfortunately, most of the stuff around them plays out like warmed-over Fargo, except at a fraction of the pace.

Yet, to his credit, Dagg (who previously helmed the not-bad River) uncorks some tense scenes that make us sit up and suddenly start to care again. The opening murder scene is deceptively tense and a later home-invasion sequence is a real hum-dinger. In contrast, the unconvincing bromance that develops agonizingly slowly between Rossi and Elwood is mostly just a snooze.

John Bernthal and Rosemarie DeWitt are terrific as Rossi and Barrett. In contrast, Christopher Abbott seems to be trying to channel Shia LaBeouf as Elwood, which is a dubious strategy. Relying on little makeup, the glammed down Imogen Poots is still almost unrecognizable as McCabe, but she gets surprisingly little screen time, given her comparative prominence.

There is a lot of talent in this film, including Jessica Lee Gagné’s stylish cinematography. By process of elimination, we come to suspect the fundamental problem is the China Brothers’ inert screenplay. Frustratingly flawed, Sweet Virginia screens again tonight (4/23), Tuesday (4/25), and Thursday (4/27), as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.