In Jamie Dagg's quiet noir Western Sweet Virginia, characters live in darkened homes behind drawn curtains and blinds they only open a thin inch. Beyond their moody abodes looms the breathtaking backdrop of mountainous Alaskan terrain, but these are people too preoccupied with their secrets to look up. The story follows a handful of townsfolk who are rocked by the triple homicide of three men, paid for by neglected wife Lila (Imogen Poots), whose husband is one of the victims. The murderer she's hired, Elwood (Christopher Abbott), holes up in a local motel run by Sam (Jon Bernthal), a gentle former rodeo star who happens to be having an affair with the wife of another of the victims. The concepts Sweet Virginia explore through this setup -- lives intersecting after a tragedy in a small town and a dangerous outsider tearing through a community -- aren't new for noir or Westerns, but the understated, intense performances of Dagg's cast make this slow burner a standout.
Abbott plays the amoral sociopath Elwood as something of a curious trickster who searches out his prey's greatest weaknesses before pulling the trigger. Dagg films the story so darkly (literally) that we often only get glimpses of characters' faces and bodies as they move through a room. At one point, I thought I was looking at a completely black screen until a shadow passed through, a visual gag that can be frustrating when it's not ratcheting the tension, inviting you to wonder what -- or who -- is in the shadows. But Dagg's hard-boiled dialogue and characters compel you to enter these rooms, even as you question what it is you'll find lurking there.
Jamie M. DaggJon Bernthal, Imogen Poots, Christopher Abbott, Rosemarie DeWitt, Jared AbrahamsonBenjamin China, Paul ChinaIFC Films