‘Sweet Virginia’ and the Effect of Violence and Moral Ambiguity in Rural Towns
We chat with Jamie M. Dagg about his latest film ‘Sweet Virginia’…and Ewoks? It gets awesomely weird!
The Shallow Pocket Project is going to Tribeca (in spirit)! We’ll be chatting with several independent filmmakers making the trek to New York for this year’s film festival. Stay tuned! Check out our last Tribeca chat with Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson (‘The Endless’). Special thanks, as always, to In The Mouth of Dorkness, Brad Gullickson, and Darren Smith.
You never really know what’s going on in small town life. There’s a general perception that these sparsely populated towns are quiet places filled with people who know each other as well as I know my own family. We suppose that feuds can last generations, but we allow that it happens in the open and is known to everyone. Sweet Virginia shows that’s all surface. There are dark depths to rural towns. Closed doors, hiding mean secrets. Some hide passionate affairs. Others, murderous conspiracies or financial malfeasance. Jamie M. Dagg’s latest gives us a taste of the dangerous icebergs hidden by the deep, still waters of rural life.
We talk about growing up in small towns. I grew up outside of a beach town in the panhandle of Florida. Dagg grew up in a small mining town called Timmins, Ontario. Both of us have since been to many different parts of the world and moved to much larger, metropolitan areas. The pace of life is different in smaller towns. The way people stop and interact with each other is different. Not better or worse, but different. You do get a sense of knowing everybody’s business. Rumors spread. A single event typically affects many other people. But, there are, of course, always surprises. The thing about small towns though is that the people are surprised to be surprised. As in, how could they not have known this thing? Whatever the secret may be. Dagg captures that dynamic very well in his latest film.
Sweet Virginia is aces neo-noir. It’s quiet. Motivations are mysterious and slowly uncovered. And the film revels in its exploration of the difference between anonymity and secrets. I feel No Country For Old Men watching this film. The movies have a similar weight to them. It’s a comparison I think Sweet Virginia can withstand. They’re about men, broken by violence and hard lives who struggle with the idea of what could have been.
The film opens with a murder. It is a cold act and executed with deliberate intention. Elwood (Christopher Abbott) comes into a diner looking to order a meal after hours. After being refused service, he threatens the three friendly locals running the place. He is very specific about sussing out the name of one of the men. Elwood leaves the diner and returns with a pistol. And then calmly shoots all three men to death.
Sam (Jon Bernthal) is a broken-down, retired rodeo cowboy who runs a motel in town. He is having an affair with Bernadette (Rosemarie DeWitt), who is the wife of one of the murdered men. Elwood, clearly with further business to accomplish in town, has rented a room at Sam’s motel. He recognizes Sam as a rodeo hero of his father’s. Sam finds the recognition to be a bit awkward, and as much as he may be put off by it there’s a hint of pleasure at being recognized for who he was rather than who he is.
I see a lot of Anton Chigurh in Abbott’s performance as Elwood. The determination. The deliberate and unyielding application of violence. Chigurh, though, is practically a force of nature, the grim reaper himself. Elwood isn’t there yet. He comes across as a broken man looking for purpose. He isn’t a sympathetic character by any stretch, as he’s clearly comfortable with cold blooded murder. But, Elwood has a vulnerability and a sense of loss that isn’t present in Chigurh’s character. It’s something that Sam sees and connects with emotionally.
Dagg’s success at working with broken characters is not suprising. He has a knack for looking at murderers and the aftermath of their actions. His first film, River (currently on Netflix Instant), which he wrote, is a thriller of an escape film as a man runs from the law after dealing a murderous dose of street justice to a rapist. He is desperate. And alone. And completely at a loss for what to do.
The photography, especially of the nature surrounding this small town, is gorgeous. It’s funny how it’s become a cliche to say, but the environment should be a character. We talked extensively about the importance of the location of the town. He insisted the story take place in Alaska. It’s a state populated by people who are perfectly content and capable of living rough and tough. They build close, but isolated communities. And then there are folks who venture off to live strictly from what they can take from the land. Locals versus outsiders is a recurring theme for him and a significant part of our conversation. In River, he had terrific shots showcasing the beauty of the land and the physical distance separating those rural communities from a more urban area. He brings that same eye to Sweet Virginia.
Dagg marshals all of these elements together into a tight story. The script is a China Brothers joint which made the Black List in 2012. You can feel the substance of the story they’ve written. When Dagg signed on to work with their script, he shares that they got together and trimmed it by thirty or forty percent. For me, the best of this kind of film present you with just enough information to put the depth of the story together for yourself. Nothing more. However! The underlying framework of knowledge is absolutely essential for all the little details to add up.
Due in no small part to that heavy preproduction for story development, they had an interesting time coming to terms with Bernthal as Sam. Dagg had come to envision the character as someone older, maybe like Michael Caine’s role in Daniel Barber’s Harry Brown. At this point, Bernthal was already bulking up for his role an The Punisher. After a few chats, though, Dagg came around to the idea of him along. Despite the physicality that felt at odds with the choice, Bernthal hits a home run on this performance. Sam is meant to be broken. Yet, Bernthal looks like he could push a tank off the road. But, my oh my, he brings everything to this role. The amazing physicality of Bernthal’s performance comes in his ability to make his imposing stature a painful reminder of Sam’s long-gone physical prowess. He walks with a limp. His limbs go just a little wobbly as he tries to use them. His hands shake. You can tell he hurts simply from trying to walk around.
Honestly, Dagg has an embarassment of riches on the casting front. Christopher Abbott and Jon Bernthal give some of the best performances I’ve seen so far this year. Their relationship is amazing. Imogen Poots and Rosemarie DeWitt play outstanding supporting roles. But, Dagg gets a lot out of his actors by bringing a detailed understanding of the emotional center of the movie and the beats in which that can and should reveal itself.
Dagg was a ton of fun to talk to, and I truly dig his movies. It’s a super tight neo-noir with outstanding performances. I encourage you to check this one out as soon as you can. As for our conversation, well. It starts off, like a simple slice of small town life. Great, on-topic discussion of the development of Sweet Virginia and Dagg’s influences. And then, uh, some closed doors get opened. I’ll just note that we conclude the chat by discussing the future of the Star Wars franchise and trading suggestions of the most inappropriate directors to work on the Ewok’s Revenge trilogy. Which is to say it finishes awesome! Click the link (or here for iTunes) and check it out.