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Review: Jon Bernthal, Christopher Abbott and Imogen Poots elevate slow-cooked Alaskan noir ‘Sweet Virginia’

The arty thriller “Sweet Virginia” is less a “neo-noir” than a “meta-noir,” dropping desperate characters into a twisty plot that eventually becomes a comment on the entire genre.

Directed by Jamie M. Dagg from a screenplay by Benjamin and Paul China, “Sweet Virginia” stars Christopher Abbott as a contract killer named Elwood, who finds his way to a motel in Alaska managed by a kindly ex-rodeo star named Sam (Jon Bernthal). There, he waits with mounting irritation for money he’s owed from his latest victim’s cash-strapped widow, Lila (Imogen Poots). It’s immediately obvious that Elwood’s not much of a professional, but instead kills indiscriminately because he’s psychologically damaged.

After opening with an explosion of violence, “Sweet Virginia” settles down into a slow-moving mood piece, concerned primarily in exploring the sad daily lives of a handful of stock characters. It’s as though these people are aware they’re crime fiction clichés and are determined to make sure the audience knows there’s more to them than meets the eye.

Dagg (who previously made the very good chase picture “River”) tries too hard to give the material a highbrow frame. The movie is dimly lighted and hushed to a fault.

But the China brothers’ script is strong, and Dagg elicits terrific performances from Abbott, Bernthal and Poots. The cast and creators of “Sweet Virginia” dig underneath flat pulp conventions and find the real pain and emotional instability at their roots.

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‘Sweet Virginia’

Rating: R, for violence, some strong sexuality, language, and drug use

Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes.

Playing: Arena Cinelounge Sunset, Hollywood

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