Sweet Virginia (2017)


Canadian director Jamie M. Dagg’s sophomore effort Sweet Virginia (after 2015’s well-received River) is a leisurely-paced affair set in a gloomy Alaskan mountain town. It features Jon Bernthal (Baby Driver) as Sam, a former rodeo champion turned motel owner, and Christopher Abbott (A Most Violent Year) as an unhinged hitman, Elwood, looking for a room for the night. Or maybe several nights… The ever-dependable Rosemarie DeWitt (Rachel Getting Married) plays Bernadette—Bernie; she has a connection to both these men, oddly—and Imogen Poots (She’s Funny That Way) is the catalyst that brings everyone, everything, together. Dagg elicits sharp performances from his principles in a drama that doesn’t rush to any conclusions and it’s that fine cast which keeps things interesting despite the screenplay’s reliance on small-town coincidences and perturbations (the script is credited to the China Brothers, twins Ben and Paul, who hail from Great Yarmouth in the UK, a small town itself despite the qualifier). The brooding Pacific Northwest atmosphere is a character in and of itself, with dark clouds forever hovering, pressing with leaden portent. If you like your thrillers more moody than thrilling, more character driven yet punctuated with occasional bursts of ugly, angry violence, then Sweet Virginia (named after the motor inn Bernthal’s character runs) should be just your cup of tea.

(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth

Mayhem (2017)


Embittered attorney Derek Cho (The Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun) responds to his unjust firing during an airborne toxic event that ravages his die-hardened law firm in the nail gun-driven thriller, Mayhem.
     A little about that virus, a convenient eight-hour plague that places Towers & Smythe Consulting on lockdown… “To the uninitiated, the ID7 strain causes stress-hormone levels to rise and blocks neural paths, essentially attacking our id by throwing off a very important balance in our brains, the balance between emotions and reason that keeps us from doing stupid things, like punching our boss in the face when angry, or fornicating with our co-workers in public. The virus temporarily severs this balance, causing inhibitions to drop and basic instincts to rise to the surface as the infected fall victim to what experts like to call ‘emotional highjacking.’ In a nutshell, basic human dignity takes a sick leave.”
     What serves as a crucial plot element here is the legal precedent centered around one Nevil Reed, the first of the infected to be officially cleared for murder.
     “Reed’s legal defence alleged that those infected with ID7 cannot control their emotions, and therefore are not liable for their resulting actions. So the poor sap lost it, repeatedly stabbed a co-worker in the face until dead, and walked, thanks to a doctor’s note. God bless the justice system.”
     The pre-credits sequence to director Joe Wrong Turn 2: Dead End Lynch’s latest wild ride, with its slo-mo, blood-red tinted black and white photography, deadpan narration (by the affable Yeun), and breezy staging all set to the dulcet strains of Rossini’s “The Thieving Magpie,” gives us a pretty good sense of what to expect for the next eighty minutes or so: wit, art, sex, gore. There’s a clever elevator montage that helps set the satisfying tone early on and the whole thing is jollied along by a pulsing electronic score by Steve Moore.
     Mayhem is not really about the ID7 strain per se; the no-holds-barred virus simply serves as a bloody catalyst in a much more commonplace tale about a wronged employee who, along with a disgruntled client (Samara Weaving, a Margot Robbie type), literally fights for justice after he’s made the fall guy for a seven-figure mistake at his competitive law firm.
     Yeun is an awfully charismatic lead and his droll voiceover breathes comic life into a screenplay that’s already pretty lively (credit first-timer Matias Caruso for a smart script that nails it in the sheer entertainment department). Caruso skewers white-collar drudgery deliciously while introducing us to a volatile roster of well-defined scumbags: the megalomaniacal, coke-snorting boss (Steven Brand), the bulletproof siren with coveted key card-access to the upper floors (Caroline Chikezie), the unflappable senior partner (Kerry Fox), and the stone-faced H.R. hatchet man (Dallas Roberts). All are delightfully drawn and delivered.

     Yeun and Weaving have a blast clawing their way up the corporate ladder; Derek and Melanie’s insta-relationship is one based on revenge and shared hatred—the eight-hour quarantine imposed on their office building works to their get-out-of-jail-free advantage. As a result, Mayhem is memorable, murderous fun.

(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth