One night is very much like another in this American smalltown, until tonight. A local bar had closed up for the evening and its owner and two of his friends were winding down with a game of cards and a drink before turning in, when the doors opened and a stranger walked in. He sat down at one of the tables and appeared to be awaiting service, so one of the casual gamblers walked over and told him there was no service to be had and he had better hit the road if he didn't want any trouble. The stranger proceeded to order. He was told once again the establishment was closed and he had to leave. The gambler walked back to his friends, and the stranger followed. With a loaded gun.
The screenplay for Sweet Virginia was one of those to secure a much-coveted place on the Black List of its year, that list of unproduced scripts judged to be of extremely high quality. The inclusion on such a list was a strong hint that they should really be made into movies, though in practice when they were the hit rate, both at the box office and with the critics, was low, be that because of production meddling or because these stories simply read better on the page than they did acted out as a movie. This example was not one of those to enjoy runaway success, it played a few theatres in America and pretty much went straight to DVD and streaming afterwards.
Was that fickle fate or did this deserve to languish in such a manner? It was true that as an experience, it was a sleepy one, with moody conversations taking place in underlit, often interior locations that did not exactly scream nailbiting suspense, and what action there was largely confined to a few bits and bobs at the end. But a good cast can add a dimension of fascination to any number of characters, underwritten or overwritten (not that anyone here was the latter), and Jon Bernthal was in full beardy mode as our ostensible hero, an ex-rodeo champ who had retired to the relative obscurity of running a motel in this out of the way, middle of nowhere, town most drive straight through.
Therefore, as he was in reduced circumstances compared to his glory days, we could perceive Sweet Virginia (which was the state this took place in) would unfold as a cowed male regaining his sense of self and masculinity, which was more or less accurate, yet what it didn't think to include was a reason for the audience to be particularly interested. Bernthal's Sam was a nice enough guy, but not compelling enough to justify spending all this time with him: a typical scene saw him knock on the door of a rowdy resident of one of his rooms only to be sent away with a flea in his ear. What made him interesting, according to the script, was that he was lonely enough to make friends with the just passing through Elwood (Christopher Abbott), who was not hanging around any longer than necessary for business motives.
They being Elwood was the man who murdered the folks in the bar at the beginning, so was only still in town thanks to him not getting paid - it was a contract killing and he was a hitman. He is not getting paid because of who hired him, local wife Lila (Imogen Poots) whose husband was killed in the bar, on her orders. She was anticipating a big pay out on the insurance, but it turns out not only was there none of that to be had, to add insult to injury the man was broke too. You can see the elements of a not bad neo-noir were present, yet they never gelled here, with director Jamie M. Dagg delivering a pace best described as sluggish and when the violence did arrive, it was simply too late in the day to have the desired, energising effect. It looked the part, when you could see what was going on, everyone in front of the camera was more than adequate, but they were not given a sufficient amount to do to justify your attention; strictly for the hardboiled crime fiction addicts. Music by Brooke Blair and Will Blair.
At this stage it seems every screenplay culled from the Blacklist ends up either bombing at the box-office, mauled by critics or somehow annoying some group on the internet. In a weird way, rather unsettling for writers trying to break away from formulaic stories, these films seem to justify those studio executives reluctant to take any chances.
12 Jan 2018
It would be a pity if the Black List proved nobody wanted originality, exactly the opposite of its intentions, but there are too few of those screenplays adapted into anything but a cult movie at best, and a mess at worst. That said, not all of them escape the rewrite machine and perhaps a lot of them lose what was good in the first place.