Christopher Abbott in Sweet Virginia (IFC Films)

Sometimes a movie comes along that manages one good idea or one strong character and surrounds that theme or role with a lot of less inspired stuff. In the noir thriller Sweet Virginia, that character is Elwood, played by Christopher Abbott with an aw-shucks sweetness that is just a tad off, which can quickly turn to menace.

In the opening sequence, Elwood kills three men in a bar in a small Alaskan town and then waits at the Sweet Virginia motel for his payoff. His presence unnerves the hotel manager, Sam (Jon Bernthal), a former rodeo star beaten to hell by his former profession. He is quiet and resigned, and Bernthal gives Sam an air of “I’m too sexy for my angst.”

Rosemarie DeWitt and Imogen Poots are also on hand. Both are fine actresses, but this is Abbott’s show, mostly because screenwriters Benjamin and Paul China don’t give them a lot to do but saunter about depressed in their tiny town. Bernthal gets a bit of a back story, but no amount of heavy lifting can lift the dourness of the film. Everything is as oppressive as the slate gray sky. The screenwriters and director Jamie M. Dagg take pains to depict the townsfolk as ordinary people living dull ordinary lives, so much so that they end up dull and ordinary.

Not so with Elwood. He seems a tender lonely puppy, desperately looking for connection of any kind. He asks the woman, who paid him for the hit job at the beginning of the movie, out on a date and then sheepishly states that he’s “Only kidding” when she stares at him disbelievingly. At heart, he’s a scared little boy, who happens to be a professional criminal.

In moments when he could be cold-blooded and ruthless, he hesitates. But make no mistake, he is a dangerous, dangerous man. In a fit when he doesn’t get his money, he brutally beats down two passersby for a snide comment, and he throws a woman against a wall so hard the plaster breaks. He is not to be trifled with, yet he is heartbreaking in his need, especially when he opens up to Sam in a heartbreaking monologue of his family history. Elwood is a unique, truthful creation and a first-rate villain. Too bad the film surrounding him does not rise to that level of excellence.

Directed by Jamie M. Dagg
Written by Benjamin China and Paul China
USA. 93 min. Rated R
With Jon Bernthal, Christopher Abbott, Imogen Poots, Rosemarie DeWitt, and Odessa Young