Review: Jon Bernthal and Christopher Abbott Face Off in the Thriller ‘Sweet Virginia’

People keep making the mistake of messing with Jon Bernthal. The actor has carved out a pretty solid niche for himself playing the tough guy with a sensitive streak that you don’t want to cross—from Wind River to The Punisher to Baby Driver—and he continues that streak with the thriller Sweet Virginia. As a former rodeo rider trying to live a small life in a small town, Bernthal simmers as Sam, a guy choosing to keep his emotions in check as the universe continues to serve him a series of a setbacks. But how much can one person take?

Things in Sweet Virginia kick off with a murder, as so many thrillers do. In a bar one night, three men play a game of cards, drinking and kvetching, until another man comes in and shoots them all dead. He double checks that they’re goners, and then shoots them a couple of times again for good measure.

The small town hasn’t seen anything this gruesome in a long time, and Sweet Virginia then pivots focus to two of the widows: the younger Lila (Imogen Poots), whose wide eyes seem in a perpetual state of disbelief, and the older Bernadette (Rosemarie DeWitt), who is having a quiet affair with Sam. The two sneak between his motel room and her home, and although there is clear affection between the two of them, a barrier is obvious, too. He puts a picture of a woman and a young girl away when she visits. She always asks whether anyone saw him come by. They’re in each other’s lives, but neither will fully surrender themselves, either.

This is fairly standard small-town life, and that’s why Elwood (Christopher Abbott) sticks out like a sore thumb. A new arrival staying at the Sweet Virginia Motor Hotel that Sam manages, Elwood couldn’t be more obviously different from those around him. He has a way of speaking that sounds like it’s a struggle to get clipped, brusque words out. He has a trigger temper, muttering a stream of vulgar insults under his breath at whoever pisses him off. But he recognizes Sam from his rodeo days, and he’s the only person Elwood seems to treat with any kind of respect. “You must get recognized” around here, he insists, and when Sam demurs, the Elwood response is perfectly in line with his character: “They’re fucking idiots.”

It is inevitable that Sam and Elwood will circle each other, and because Sweet Virginia is a pretty effective genre piece, the movie takes its time building the tension required between the two men. We see each interact with other people, cementing their personalities—Sam’s struggle to react to other people’s dismissal; Elwood’s phone call to a mother who doesn’t seem to remember him—and the pacing is measured enough that scenes seem to unspool rather than unravel.

And this is an absurd cast: Jonathan Tucker makes a foul-mouthed impression in his brief few minutes of screen time; Poots and DeWitt draw you into their dynamic of two women trying to move on from a horrendous crime; and of course, Bernthal and Abbott play quite well off each other. The shortcoming of Sweet Virginia, though, is that its sparseness means Sam and Elwood unfortunately don’t have that many scenes together, and because the narrative is kicked off with the murders, the forward momentum of the plot is tied directly to that event, and doesn’t have much room to grow.

Sweet Virginia would benefit from more interactions between its main characters and an expanded plot, but it’s a sign of the overall quality of the film that the complaint is we want more. Cut from the same cloth as the modern-day classic Blue Ruin, Sweet Virginia is a solid genre exercise.