Tribeca Film Festival Reviews: Men with Guns – ‘Sweet Virginia’ and ‘Hondros’

The men in Sweet Virginia mumble. They also do push-ups, grow beards and know how to shoot a gun. They’re archetypal tough guys — classic cowboys — and like every Marlboro Man that’s ever brooded before them, they are inventions; fictions that fuel our fantasies of power and sexuality. They’ve starred in movies for as long as movies have been around, and while Sweet Virginia is not above mythologizing masculinity, it manages to tell a darn good story in the process.

Elwood (Christopher Abbott) walks into an empty restaurant, sits in a booth and orders the special. We’re closed,” the men in the back say, but Elwood doesn’t listen. The clipped exchange turns into a brutal robbery/triple-homicide, and though viewers may know who did it, director Jamie M. Dagg is smart enough to leave out the why.

Taking a cue from Alfred Hitchcock and the Coen Brothers, the writers of Sweet Virginia have no qualms about letting their villain be the most fascinating character on screen. Abbott makes for a stellar social outcast, and the plot hinges on whether or not his muscular madman gets paid by a disingenuous woman whose identity I won’t reveal.

The idealized cowboy is Sam (Jon Bernthal), the macho single dude who wakes up shirtless and takes a hit off a joint first thing in the morning to relieve his existential pain. He’s the hardened, self-reliant type, and it works because he’s the proprietor of a motel, meaning the only people he has to deal with are drifters and junkies. When the burglary-homicide results in the death of his girlfriend’s husband, a new challenge arrives. She wants to get closer but he’s hesitant. Sam was a bull-riding champion once, and chasing the highs of the ride only led him to the ground. Herein lies the next conceit: every tough guy’s surface belies a fragile core.

Elwood is staying at Sam’s motel and their strained interactions/similar looks make them fantastic doubles. Elwood is like Sam’s evil younger brother, and when his need for cash requires an act of violence committed against someone close to Sam, the results are bloody, tense and thrilling to watch.

Sweet Virginia makes use of familiar character types, but its polished script and gloomy atmospherics save the day. Grounded by strong performances from Abbott, Bernthal and Imogen Poots, the film is a deftly made drama with intellect, suspense and more heart than you might expect.

Hondros is a documentary that also features men with guns. Here, they’re soldiers, American and international, and their photos have, at some point, been taken by Christopher Hondros, a prolific war photographer killed on the job in Liberia in 2011. Directed by the photographer’s best friend and fellow photojournalist Greg Campbell, Hondros is a heartfelt commemoration and fine ode to the life and work of a man whose pictures helped inform the world of the world.

Except Hondros faces the obstacle of every in memoriam documentary: once the biography is respectfully told, what’s a director left to do? Hondros quickly becomes underwhelming because it aims only to praise.

The most successful scenes are when Campbell switches the focus away from Christopher’s life and onto the backstory of specific photographs. He travels to meet with some of Christopher’s subjects — a few of whom Christopher had never met himself — and gives them the chance to tell their side of the story; the story the standalone photograph couldn’t.

Implicit in this approach to Christopher’s work is the idea that a Hondros photograph, no matter how incredible or unspeakably sad, does not and cannot tell the whole truth. Whether or not this Sontagian takeaway was the director’s intent isn’t clear. It’s more likely that he set out to tell one story and ended up telling a bigger and more gripping one in the process. The most unforgettable voice featured in the film doesn’t come from one of Chris’ friends or coworkers but rather one of his own subjects — an Iraqi teenager whose parents were wrongfully murdered by U.S. troops. She was only five at the time and Chris was there, too. He took the young girl’s photo as she sat crumpled in the ground, screaming from having witnessed her parents get shot to death. This documentary has given her the chance to speak, and she voices her anger and hurt with more honesty and hurt than every tearjerker at Tribeca combined. Campbell apologizes on behalf of the U.S. trooper, but the girl doesn’t accept the apology. It’s the best scene in the film.

What Sweet Virginia and Hondros have in common is the notion that men with guns aren’t as brave or bloodthirsty as they seem. Neither Elwood, the achingly lonely killer in Sweet Virginia, nor the real-life soldiers in Hondros — traumatized by guilt in the aftermath of war — are better, fuller or stronger people for having shot guns. Pulling a trigger has only made them weaker, more cowardly and more fearful than ever before. Sweet Virginia and Hondros end in deaths that remind viewers the world is darker and more dangerous than we can imagine. However, one death is obviously more tragic than the other because it doesn’t take place in the made-up world of movies. Guns, real or fake, are not the answer.

Erica Peplin (@ericapeplin) is a writer and editor for Spectrum Culture. She lives in New York.