Christopher Abbott essentially has two modes: Intense, and way more intense. The former “Girls” star, whose blooming career is still often seen as a response to his brief time on (and tumultuous exit from) that epochal HBO show, has spent the last few years playing one brooding knuckle-dragger after another, like he’s trying to rid himself of whatever cooties Lena Dunham may have left behind.
From “James White” to “Katie Says Goodbye,” the Greenwich, CT native seems exclusively drawn to characters who could punch a wall at any moment — you can’t take your eyes off the guy, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that he picks his roles by imagining what might happen if Marlon Brando’s Stanley Kowalski walked off the screen and started wandering through the modern indie landscape.
But that’s all about to change, as Jamie M. Dagg’s “Sweet Virginia” brings you Christopher Abbott like you’ve never seen him before. Just kidding, this breathless crime saga finds the actor evolving into his ultimate form: The millennial Anton Chigurh. Playing a mumble-mouthed hitman who likes to toy with his prey, Abbott sets the tone for this nerve-shredding neo-noir; it’s a story about a one-man crimewave that sweeps through a small town like wildfire, and Elwood (no last name given) is nothing if not a force of nature.
A dark and densely packed chunk of pulp fiction, the film is set in a verdant Alaska valley, but it’s much more easily located in Coen brothers territory. It starts, as such things must, with a killing gone wrong. Lila (Imogen Poots, an ace femme fatale) only paid Elwood to shoot her two-timing husband, but the assassin from out of town gets a little impatient, and a little overzealous, and murders two other men along with his target.
This sharp burst of violence is enough to shake up everyone who lives in the otherwise sleepy area, but the newly widowed Bernadette (Rosemarie Dewitt) seems less affected than most. She hadn’t slept with her husband in five years; instead, she’s been spending most of her nights over at the Sweet Virginia motel, where Sam, the sad and sweet-hearted proprietor (Jon Bernthal), has seen to her every need.
A former rodeo star who moved out west once his limp became permanent and the tremors started setting in, Sam doesn’t know it yet, but he’s renting a room to the person responsible for all of this recent bloodshed. Elwood won’t be vacating until Lila pays him his fee, but Lila is about to find out that her husband left her with more debt than cash. Things quickly spiral out of control from there.
Dagg, whose 2015 debut “River” was similarly tense, wastes little time in creating an atmosphere that’s suffocated by suspense — shot in steady, probing long-takes by Denis Côté’s regular cinematographer, Jessica Lee Gagné, every frame pulses with the potential for violence. Running a tight 95 minutes, the film is gripping from start to finish, even when so much of its menace rings hollow.
Abbott brings all sorts of bruised anger to his performance — sputtering with rage and beating the hell out of strangers — and Bernthal is phenomenal playing against his macho meathead type with a character who’s haunted by his past and just wants to start over with whatever spare parts he finds lying around, but the China brothers’ terse script is slow to develop into anything deeper than a steely-eyed genre exercise. “Sweet Virginia” (which is the name of Sam’s motel) eventually resolves into a story about the pain of the past and the cost of leaving it behind, but its undercurrents are never as strong as its visceral pleasures.
Fortunately, those pleasures come in spades. From Brooke and Will Blair’s mournful string score, to the screenplay’s clever use of callbacks and its mordant sense of humor, to the film’s nebulous sense of time (it’s suspended between between the analog and digital eras), “Sweet Virginia” is riveting even when it feels insubstantial. Dagg’s steady hand creates a narrow but cohesive world in which the bad guys are capable of love, and the good guys are capable of savagery.
It may be better, as one character says, to die of a broken heart than a bullet, but neither of those is a good way to go.
“Sweet Virginia” premiered in the Spotlight Narrative section of the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.