We almost never see the sun in Jamie M. Dagg's neo noir, Sweet Virginia. The grey clouds that hang over this sleepy Alaskan mountain town mirror the stressful trials that each of its residents are enduring. Some are struggling to keep small ventures afloat. Others are just wishing that their spouses would stop cheating on them for five seconds. Sam (Jon Bernthal) just wants his hands to stop shaking - a byproduct of riding bulls in the South for so many years during his wild youth. Now the cowboy is a Nowheresville motel owner, his place of business ("Sweet Virginia") taking its name from the beloved home state he can't seem to forget (no matter how hard he tries). This single story oasis of $39.99/night rooms is as much his home as it is a waystation for low rent hookers and their abusive johns, but he doesn't mind as long as the rent's paid and they keep the fuck noises from spilling over into their neighbors' temporary abodes.
That's until Elwood (Christopher Abbott) books a few nights in Sam's quaint stop-over. The screenplay for Sweet Virginia - penned by Benjamin and Paul China (a/k/a "The China Brothers", per the credits) - is a mash of pulp fiction cues that we've certainly seen a few times before. We know this wayward stranger is nothing but bad news, as we just saw him gun down three men in a late night diner confrontation, all because they seemingly wouldn't sell him an early bird special after hours. But Elwood arrived at that greasy spoon with a purpose - contracted by Lila (Imogen Poots, a sleepy femme fatale in sweatpants) to off her philandering husband. The other two were collateral damage, a pair of wrong place/wrong time deaths that will go unnoticed by just about everyone after their obituaries are written in the papers, and their caskets are lowered into the ground.
Only one of those mowed down souls was the husband of Sam's fling. Bernadette (Rosemarie DeWitt) seems less affected by her spouse's death than she should. However, she hadn’t slept with her husband in five years; instead, she’s been spending most of her nights trying to get Sam to trim his lustrous head of hair as the melancholy proprietor makes sure the pictures of his long gone wife and daughter sit face down on the nightstand. Bernadette can't even cry over the murdered man's grave, as their arrangement of convenience held little emotional attachment for her, instead acting as a financial parachute that ensured she'd never go without. Unfortunately, when it turns out Lila's deceased lesser half saddled her with a mountain of debt instead of the life insurance money she expected, Elwood comes calling for whatever source of income she can point him toward.
You can probably guess how this all ends up, as there aren't many unpredictable twists or turns in the China Brothers' still carefully constructed script. Nevertheless, the joys mined from Sweet Virginia come from Dagg's sturdy competence behind the camera, as he lays out one doom-laden, impeccably framed shot after another, Jessica Lee Gagné's damp, shadowy cinematography painting every scene as tableaus of inescapable portent. At their center is Sam, trying desperately to make sense of his own emotions, comforting Bernadette while playing father to Maggie (Odessa Young), the star high school point guard who works behind the motel's counter and loves seeing her boss in the stands at her games. While neither Dagg nor the China Brothers spell it out completely, this former rodeo champ was broken by more than the bulls, and has yet to find a way to pick up the pieces all these years later. Bernthal sells that devastation completely, using those deep, dark eyes and crushed nose to convey a life lived hard.
Even though Bernthal is teriffic in Sweet Virginia, the real star is Abbott, who feels like he's toying with an origin story iteration of the Coens' Anton Chigurh (from their fatalistic '07 masterpiece, No Country For Old Men). This story begins and ends (both literally and figuratively) with Elwood, and Abbott brings an unwavering sense of menace to every moment he's on screen. Where Sam is a man flailing to regain the feeling he lost in his hands, Elwood seems perfectly fine never enjoying any sensation beyond the thrill of the hunt ever again. Abbott injects a playful, dead-eyed stare into the hired gun, who we never really learn much about and, frankly, probably wouldn't ever want to know. He is near elemental death, breezing in, taking care of business, and then exiting like a ghost. In essence, Abbott's the perfect thematic flipside to Bernthal's brooding coin, as we watch two men collide out of pure circumstance, with one rediscovering his capacity for purpose by shielding all he loves from the wrath of the other.