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Jennifer Connelly's Virginia and Ed Harris's Sheriff Tipton carry on a long-time affair in the Dustin Lance Black film Virginia. (Andy Terzes)
Jennifer Connelly's Virginia and Ed Harris's Sheriff Tipton carry on a long-time affair in the Dustin Lance Black film Virginia. (Andy Terzes)

Dual movie review

The Samaritan and Virginia: Two genre scripts that share similar shortcomings Add to ...

  • Country USA
  • Language English

Reviewed here: Virginia and The Samaritan (two stars each)

On any given Friday, the films that are new to town head straight to their multiplex hotel where, booked into separate rooms, they never keep company. So let’s remedy that and, as a small social experiment, introduce Virginia to The Samaritan.

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The two might be surprised to learn how much they have in common. Both movies are stocked with talented casts, hard-working actors who find themselves underemployed in genre scripts that are different in aim but identical in shortcomings. And, once the tour of duty on the big screen has ended, both are likely to leave as they arrived – more loved by their makers than by anyone else, just another pair of humble soldiers in the cinematic campaigns. They came, they got seen, they didn’t conquer.

Virginia is the more artistically ambitious and, perhaps for that reason, the more annoying. Its maker is writer/director Dustin Lance Black, whose résumé includes scripts for Milk, the recent J. Edgar, and episodes of Big Love. Here, he takes us into Southern-Gothic terrain, where Virginia (Jennifer Connelly towing her Dixie accent like a parade float) is a tormented belle from, well, Virginia. Tormented, because she’s a “functioning schizophrenic,” a malady that sees the poor woman oscillating between childlike innocence and paranoid delusions. Taking its cue from her, the film is similarly off-kilter in look and scattered in tone, weaving to and fro from dark tragedy to surreal comedy – each plentiful but neither convincing.

For example, Virginia, a single mom, has been conducting a long-time affair with Sheriff Tipton (Ed Harris) who, despite being married and a Mormon and running for state senator, still finds time in his busy moral schedule to engage in frequent moral lapses – specifically, kinky sex featuring abundant leather and accessorizing whips. Nevertheless, all’s well enough until the sheriff discovers that his teenage daughter Jessie is playing kissy-face with Virginia’s teenage son Emmett. Confrontation ensues and, this being Southern Gothic, guns get pulled. Later, this being Southern Gothic with a bizarre comic twist, gorilla masks get donned and banks get robbed.

Huh? Exactly. It’s all rather wacky and hard to follow or fathom, although maybe that’s attributable to Virginia’s schizophrenia veering off on its delusional phase. This is when Emmett is obliged to do again what he’s done all his young life – tenderly mother his mother. Yes, a drop of poignancy is added to the pile, but by now the pile is so heaping – sex plus violence plus psychodrama plus blatant hypocrisy, both political and religious – that the drop goes entirely unfelt. Indeed, by the end, we’re pretty much numb, content to flee Virginia and head north to …

The Samaritan. In fact, we’ve travelled all the way up to Toronto, the unnamed setting for this wannabe exercise in neo-noir. Elsewhere, in a multitude of multiplexes, Samuel L. Jackson is riding high on the uber-grossing success of The Avengers. But, here, he’s just another hard worker again, doing humble service on behalf of a scripted cliché: the ex-con who wants to go straight until the plot kicks in. Out in the free world, the usual temptations show up in the usual shapes – the sexy drug addict/hooker, looking so pert and fresh despite her twin habits, and the ambitious upstart keen to lure the old pro back into “the grift.”

No surprises so far. But then, about a third of the way along, there’s a shocking revelation that definitely packs a punch. Problem is, it’s followed by a near-immediate return to familiar narrative convention, where the noir ante rises exponentially toward a climax that arrives too hastily and ends too neatly. However, en route, watch for a glittering cameo by Tom Wilkinson, who, in a few short but memorable scenes, plays the actor’s version of the small con: He steals a picture that’s barely worth the theft.

There, introductions over. Time for Virginia and The Samaritan to toddle off on their separate paths, perhaps to meet again in the cinematic hereafter, in all those many places where even little movies enjoy long lives.

Virginia

  • Directed and written by Dustin Lance Black
  • Starring Jennifer Connelly and Ed Harris
  • Classification: 14A
  • 2 stars

The Samaritan

  • Directed by David Weaver
  • Written by David Weaver and Elan Mastai
  • Starring Samuel L. Jackson
  • Classification: 14A
  • 2 stars


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