As a character, the ‘psychopath’ is one of the most overused and misunderstood figures on screen; if a writer requires a demonic genius to creatively maim beautiful young women, use a psychopath. Or if the story needs an unstoppable force of nature to pursue the protagonist beyond the limits of a normal person, just use a psychopath. Representing the deep abyss of what a human might be capable of, on-screen psychopaths have become a waste-basket collection of aggressive clichés.
Enter Elwood (portrayed by Christopher Abbott), the horrifying antagonist of Sweet Virginia. Abbott gives an awkward, queasy performance that’s brilliant for the role. At once he’s snide and manipulating, warning Lila (Imogen Poots), the woman who hired him to murder her husband, what might happen if he doesn’t get paid. As he waits for the money he lingers in a small Alaskan town, leaning on the sympathies of Sam (Jon Bernthal), manager of the local motel, evoking the figure of a pathetic and mewling drifter to befriend him. As the days tick by and Lila confesses she can’t pay up, Elwood’s fits of bestial rage escalate. The most terrifying part of the film is watching this psychopath unravel as the awkward balance he’s built within himself goes completely off-kilter. At one point or another we’ve all met someone who just seems wrong, like their face is a lopsided mask, or their eyes are blank balls of glass. Elwood is this kind of psychopath, one that exists in the real world.
Indeed, Sweet Virginia’s greatest strength is its characters. The plot itself isn’t particularly compelling, the scope is small, and the dialogue isn’t sharp or witty. What the spoken words do achieve, however, is elevating a small cast of characters into a group of people who feel real. With subtle, understated performances, every actor on screen brings a beautiful humanity to even the most conflicted motivations, particularly Rosemarie DeWitt as she struggles with her apathy following her husband’s murder, a collateral death in the film’s opening scene. 19-year-old Odessa Young, too, belies her inexperience as an actor and holds her own alongside Jon Bernthal. Their surrogate father-daughter relationship could easily have been an inconsequential vignette, barely featured for ten minutes of the film, but handled by two such competent actors the brief and touching scenes shared between them almost form a complete subplot.
Jon Bernthal, though, is undoubtedly the heart of this film, his performance grounding a collection of characters who are often difficult to empathise with. Sam, a softly-spoken bull-rider who’s retired and now runs a motel, is a departure from Bernthal’s usual repertoire, so often typecast as a criminal or tough-guy. But over his career Bernthal has repeatedly hinted at his depth as an actor, which is why it’s so exciting to finally see him be given the opportunity to break from convention and portray a character who is more often at the receiving end of a beating rather than the one handing out the punches.
It’s Bernthal’s vulnerability in this film that makes his interactions with Abbott so evocative. As the retired rodeo star, with early-onset Parkinson’s from a lifetime of head injuries, Bernthal stands to represent the twenty-first century America; a worn-out cowboy offering protection and shelter for anyone who needs it, but so stripped of youth and vitality that he can’t even stand up to a guest clearly beating his wife, or recognise the psychopath he’s slowly befriending. Abbott is the enemy within, an instrument used by families to destroy each other, desperate to imitate and appropriate the power and masculinity of Bernthal as he timidly tries on the motel manager’s stars & stripes hat. This analogy makes the finale of the film all the more chilling; Bernthal’s weapon of choice is a Nazi rifle his grandfather acquired in the Second World War. Though Sweet Virginia is a single film, when seen within the rising tide of the alt-right in America, it’s an uncomfortable resolution when the only way an impotent and aging America can overcome its adversaries is when it holds a fascist rifle in its shaking hands.