Published May 17, 2012Noted as the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of J. Edgar and Milk, as well as a writer for HBO polygamy drama Big Love, Dustin Lance Black's upbringing as an alienated, closeted Mormon homosexual suffuses his work, reiterating themes of repression and resultant mental instability in the face of fractured authority figures. Each effort outlines a flawed figure seeking change or escape from an oppressive, damaging or inept environment, only to wind up martyred or loathed and consistently misunderstood.
As such, his directorial debut, Virginia, is the most oblique example of his themes, again drawing on notions of religious hypocrisy, with married, small-town Mormon Sheriff and politician Dick Tipton (Ed Harris), using the local schizophrenic, Virginia (Jennifer Connelly), to act out his leather-bondage sex fantasies. Possibly being the father of her illegitimate and emotionally isolated son, Emmett (Harrison Gilbertson), his refusal to support Virginia when she announces her (fake) pregnancy leads to a series of events involving attempted bank robberies and religious curiosity.
Because Connelly and Harris are involved – both worked together on Pollock – this template of an unstable woman trying to raise a son while being used and disposed by an authority figure could work as a character drama. Even the use of lilting, introspective voiceover with hazy, ethereal cinematography could drive home the notion of social performance as a prison with invisible bars.
Unfortunately, Black has a variety of issues and themes he wants to tackle within his narrative, giving Virginia severe lung cancer, which she ignores, and tying her female struggle to that of a homosexual one as metaphor for AIDS. He also ties in concepts of maternal misdirection and self-loathing, bringing in the character of Tipton's daughter, Jessie (Emma Roberts), as a romantic, potentially incestuous love interest for Emmett, whose inexplicable desire for marriage acts as a weird and undeveloped example of parental irresponsibility when Virginia encourages their youthful larks.
In trying to mirror the feminine struggle with one of illness, while tossing in youthful alienation and fractured social norms and authority figures, Black's messy, tonally vacillating narrative inevitably implodes. By the end, there's a sense that a great deal of thought went into everything, as well as genuine appreciation for Connelly's smart, sympathetic performance, but also the awareness that Black needs to step back and focus before approaching such a sprawling thematic work in the future. (eOne)