She may be a poor paranoid schizophrenic stranded in a sleepy Southern beach town, but at least Virginia (Jennifer Connelly) has the love of a doting teenage son, Emmett (Harrison Gilbertson), and a gentleman caller, Sheriff Richard Tipton (Ed Harris). When she starts stuffing her blouse with lingerie and calling herself pregnant, her politically ambitious (and married) Mormon suitor makes a hasty retreat—at least until Emmett starts dating his sheltered daughter, Jessie (Emma Roberts). As Virginia spirals into madness and Tipton desperately defends himself against scandalous ruin, Dustin Lance Black’s semiautobiographical film shifts uneasily from expressionist fugue to miserablist farce, climaxing in a crosscut frenzy of robbery, religious conversion, suicide and hail-of-bullets-style martyrdom.
His movie may be a total tonal mess, but Black, who won a screenwriting Oscar for Milk and penned Eastwood’s J. Edgar, certainly doesn’t lack ambition. Uninterested in telling the story straight or painting a reductive portrait of his characters, Black couches the movie’s narration in the twinned voiceovers of Virginia and Emmett—one sincere but factually untrustworthy, the other colored by mournful romanticism. It’s a clever device—but it also serves to undercut fine performances by Connelly and Harris, whose choices are constantly destabilized by scripted swings between comedy and drama, realism and fantasy, genuine catharsis and indie-film ornamentation. Black’s overactive melodrama is more than a representation of schizophrenia; it’s the embodiment of it.
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