Plot: Elwood (Christopher Abbott) is a drifter who slides into a bar after hours and interrupts a trio of men, who advise him to pack up and head out. He resists, but the men are quite insistent and demand that he takes off. Instead, he produces a gun and begins to fire, killing all three men in a torrent of sudden violence. This incident didn’t happen by accident, as he was hired by the wife of one of the men, but he wasn’t supposed to kill anyone else, so three bodies means two unplanned victims. As the victim’s wife tries to scrape up the cash for the fee when the insurance payoff is withheld, Elwood forges a bond of sorts with Sam (Jon Bernthal), the man who owns the motel where Elwood is holed up. Soon tensions escalate and secrets begin to surface, turning the small town into a hotbed of tension and potential betrayal.

Entertainment Value: I like the premise of Sweet Virginia, a slow burn thriller with small town tensions and several threads that slowly weave together as the movie rolls forward. The end result is solid, but fails to live up to the potential of a memorable start and settles in as a good, but not great thriller. The performances are strong and the best part of the movie, as the cast is able to make the material work better than it should. The script isn’t weak, but it is rather basic and seems content to be predictable, telegraphing plot twists from a mile off. The slow burn texture begs for a wild moment here or there, but Sweet Virginia keeps things on track and refuses to budge, even when the finale can be seen long before the last scenes unfold. The pace is deliberate, but the tension is good and remains effective, so the slow burn approach works and doesn’t feel drawn out, save for the lackluster finale. But as I said, the tension is good and the performances are great, so there’s a lot to like with Sweet Virginia. So if you’re a fan of slow burn thrillers, give this one a look, just keep your expectations in check.

The cast is one of the film’s strongest assets, as the material can be a little thin at times, so the performers rise to the challenge. This means a lot of scenes work much better than they should, as the actors are able to make predictable, basic scenes come off as tense or at least interesting. A weaker cast would have doomed Sweet Virginia, as this script needs to be carried, but thankfully the ensemble here boasts some remarkable talent and the cast showed up to perform. Jon Bernthal is likely the main reason people will look into Sweet Virginia and he is up to the task, with a restrained, powerful effort. He has a good back and forth with Christopher Abbott, as the two have some of the film’s best moments in the shared sequences. Abbott is able to keep pace with Bernthal, so it seems like the two bring out the best in each other and by turn, the movie benefits from two strong lead performances. Rosemarie DeWitt is also fantastic here, in a smaller role, but one that adds a lot to the picture. The cast also includes Imogen Poots, Odessa Young, and Jonathan Tucker.

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