Vancouver International Film Festival runs from September 28 – October 13, 2017. Screening films from more than 70 countries on nine screens, VIFF’s program includes the pick of the world’s top film fests and many undiscovered gems. 

Overview: A retired rodeo star becomes involved with a killer in a small town. Automatik Entertainment; 2017; Rated R; 105 Minutes.

Cold Open: Sweet Virginia is a complex web filled with many spiders. Ex-rodeo champ Sam (Jon Bernthal) has retired his spurs after too many falls off the bull and runs a little motel in Alaska called Sweet Virginia that gets its fair share of strange, transient characters. One of these is Elwood (Christopher Abbott), a hired gun with significant mental health issues. He’s there because he’s been hired for a job that got out of hand, causing more than a few ripples in the small, sleepy community. The job is easier said than done: murder an unfaithful husband and receive payment from his substantial insurance settlements. There’s always collateral damage though, and more than one body ends up on the table.

Jamie M. Dagg’s taut thriller pulls from the painful masculinity of the area, bringing to mind the work of Jeff Nichols’ Shotgun Stories focusing on the hard living that molds men into ugly sketches of their former selves. Side characters come with their fists clenched, the man who abuses his girlfriend in the motel and lashes out at anyone who questions them makes several unsettling appearances. Both Elwood and Sam walk with a limp. Sam’s physical because of his risky hobby and Elwood’s mental because of a lack of mental healthcare and difficult upbringing. Sam leans on drugs and business to cope with his past and Elwood is a rage machine always on the edge, always looking for a reason to fight. Bernthal can be very hit or miss in his roles, but he was meant for this one, all sad and sexy and somehow just raw enough.

It’s not fair to fully equate the two. Sam does penance for his absent fatherhood by being a surrogate father to Maggie (Odessa Young), giving advice and cheering her on at her basketball games. Though troubled, he genuinely seems to be a good man. In fact, Elwood looks up to Sam, a hometown hero as they both happen to be from Virginia. Men from around that area seem to carry it with them everywhere they go, even as far as Alaska, and use it to form a fragile and suspicious bond with each other. This relationship wavers from polite accommodation to an ultimate confrontation that keeps the audience on the edge of their seat.

Another fragile bond to note is the one between the two widows Lila (Imogen Poots) and Bernadette (Rosemarie DeWitt). Bernie lost her husband of 18 years and cannot shed a single tear. Faced with his death she confronts her painful reality: “I was not the best wife,” she tells Lila, a fact quickly proven by a scene with Sam at the funeral rife with sexual tension and more than a little bit of love. Lila is young, a relative newlywed with only three years of marriage under her belt. Her grief is mingled with fear, fear of being caught and facing retribution for her decision. She’s constantly playing a false part and glancing over her shoulder for the repayment she knows is coming. In the end her cowardice will turn her against everyone.

Regardless of the moral ambiguity of their relationship, Sam and Bernie share something special and the brief glimpses of their relationship are rich and moving. Baggage is as heavy as can be in  middle age, and lovers must come to terms with difficult, ugly pasts in order to forge their way towards a thriving future. How they touch and care for each others’ wounds determines whether they hold on and survive the onslaught of life and the consequences that crash into them like waves.

Rage: In the lobby I spoke with a gentleman who shared his interpretation of the film being about feminine rage, about how the quiet, sneaky ways of angry women create monsters of men. This offended me at first but the more I turned it over in my brain, it started to make a little bit of sense. Lila’s anger about her cheating husband and dissatisfaction with her life causes her to hire a somewhat primitive man for one purpose, the same purpose he’s lived for most of his life: to kill. Her choices wreak havoc on the entire community, even though much of it is out of her control. One brief glimpse of Bernie’s bloodied up husband in a dream shows that her anger and decision towards infidelity brings out a primal rage between men who fight over women.

But women’s quiet rage is not to blame for the bloodthirsty wild masculine anger that exists in the world, and suggesting at their ways being more sinister than the ones that draw blood is the wrong way to look at it. Neither sex is innocent and both are capable of destroying lives. Though Lila hired Elwood, she had no part in the class divide and upbringing that surely shaped him into the killer he is today. Though Bernie slept with another man, she is not the sole perpetrator of male insecurity and foolish physical outburst. Both women made arguably bad choices and play their roles in the devastation that follows, but both women also pay dearly for it, one much more than she deserves. These inspired conversations alone help Sweet Virginia become a thoughtful thriller with more layers than one might expect.

Overall: It’s not all cold guns and foggy valleys in Sweet Virginia. The end holds a surprising amount of heart giving great relief after the tense thrill without pulling it too far into weepy territory. Tight writing, dense themes, and a competent cast list make this thriller stand out in an over-saturated crowd.

Grade: A

Featured Image: IFC Films