Sweet Virginia

Jon Bernthal’s performances throughout cinema would be recognisable to most, but his name would be unfamiliar to the average punter. From the tanks of Fury to the work of assassins in The Accountant then to be in one of the best films of 2017, Baby Driver, he has become one of most prolific actors in modern cinema. The hard-nosed actor who is best known for his supporting roles until the recent Netflix show The Punisher. Sweet Virginia may not be the breakout role for him, but it does move Bernthal from the background to the forefront of this new suspense thriller.

He plays Sam Rossi, a former rodeo star who has moved back to his hometown at the conclusion of his bull-riding career to manage his brother’s motel. Despite the quiet and mundane existence provided by the small community, recent events have caused things to go pear-shaped for Sam and many within the community. The recent murder of some local businessmen and the recent arrival of an enquiring stranger lead to a wave of violence in the small town. The brutality disrupts Sam’s quiet life when it affects the ones he loves, his livelihood and his life.

In the realm of suspense thrillers, the pacing of this film is a reflection of the sleepy town that surrounds the storyline. Outside of the violence of the opening act, things move along methodically and slowly as it builds to a smouldering fire. As each layer of the film is introduced, the tension grows despite the sluggishness of the storytelling.

What director Jamie M. Dagg lacks in action he manages to capture in strong characterisations. Christopher Abbott (Whiskey Tango Foxtrot) manages to capture the disturbingly anti-social essence of the hired assassin. It is hard to describe how he succeeds in being frightening and pitiable at the same time as he quietly terrorises the small-town. Matching this masterful antagonist is the morally conflicted performance by Rosemarie DeWitt (La La Land). She is able to show that her character may be naive to the reasons behind her husband’s murder, but that does not mean she is innocent in within this scenario. These strong supporting roles help to push Bernthal’s character out of his life of melancholy and show him that life after fame is worthwhile. This role proves that the seasoned actor has a range that exceeds his dominating and confronting portrayals in other films to the vulnerable, but strong lead character.

Sweet Virginia is a film that will get under your skin and fester for a while. Even though it does not break new ground in cinema, it does expose the very human response to the extremes of life. This violent and disconcerting tale also manages to prove that Jon Bernthal does deserve to move from backstage to the lead role in more films in the future.

REEL DIALOGUE: What are some of the bigger questions to consider from this film? 

1. Is revenge the answer to injustice?

(Psalm 37: 27-29, Romans 12:17-21)

2. What is biblical justice?

(Psalm 7:9, Romans 3:5-6)
3. Who determines right and wrong?

(John 3:19-21, Matthew 28:18)

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Russell Matthews

Russell loves film and enjoys engaging in discussions about the latest cinema offerings and then connecting this with the Gospel. He has worked for City Bible Forum for over 10 years, is a reviewer for Insights Magazine and Entertainment Fuse and has a blog called Russelling Reviews. He moderates events for Reel Dialogue which connect the film industry with the general public.