Centred around a motel in a small Alaskan town, Sweet Virginia is a story of people and a place gripped by greed, frustration and murder.
“I’m originally from a small town,” says the Timmins, Ont.-born director Jamie M. Dagg, “so I’m really fascinated by how the lack of anonymity in small communities changes the dynamics and how people relate to one another where everyone is incestuously interwoven into the fabric of the community. Keeping secrets is really difficult.”
In the film, Christopher Abbott is Elwood, a dead-eyed psychopath who comes to town to do a job. He’s been hired by Lila (Imogen Poots) to kill her cheating husband. He does the hit, callously killing two innocent bystanders in the process.
Waiting for his money, he checks into the motel run by Sam (Jon Bernthal), a former rodeo star now sidelined by injuries. The two men strike up a friendship as Elwood grows edgy and unpredictable waiting for Lila to cough up his fee.
“These are communities where the ramifications of misdeeds are dramatically amplified,” says Dagg. “It often ripples across the entire population.”
Dagg, whose first film, River, won the 2016 Canadian Screen Award for best first feature, says the first actor to sign on for Sweet Virginia was Abbott. Best known for playing Marnie’s ex-boyfriend Charlie on the HBO comedy-drama series Girls, Abbott didn’t immediately seem like a good fit to play a cold-blooded killer.
“Then I watched (the movie) James White with Cynthia Nixon,” Dagg says, picking up the story. “He has incredible range. Both of us had issues with this guy being (as was originally written) a really charismatic, cool cowboy. We were both interested in pushing it into the person who was bullied in high school but could be the next Columbine shooter.”
The character is a viper, a deadly man with no remorse. Imagine No Country for Old Men’s Anton Chigurh and you get the idea.
“I decided and Jamie agreed that Elwood is a character who inherently despises humans,” says Abbott. “It was challenging in making sure to avoid clichés. There are a lot of very good, very credible performances out there of quote-unquote ‘villains’. I found it challenging to respect the lineage of playing villains while trying to do my own thing with it.”
Abbott says he’s been inadvertently researching this role for years.
“I read books on psychology,” he says, “even books like The Psychopath Test. I used something I read in that book for this part. It is part of my job as an actor that, no matter how bad a character is, is to justify or feel sorry for him. That’s the fun of it. How do you have a soft spot for a murderous psychopath?”
Sweet Virginia takes place against a backdrop of duplicity and dread but Abbott says bringing this story of menace to the screen was relatively trouble free.
“Jamie created an atmosphere where we were able to play as actors,” says the actor, “and he really enjoyed watching us, which gave us confidence to go further and do more. It was a nice marriage that way.”
Dagg concurs. “My first film, River, was a challenging film to make. This film was sort of easy. The next one is probably going to be hell! These things are not supposed to be this easy.”