Inspired by directors Ken Loach, Mike Leigh and John Cassavetes, Joe Maggio’s directorial debut, Virgil Bliss, bears the influence of all three with varying degrees of success. A slice of social commentary, it focuses on a small group of retrograde characters on the streets of New York, united by their hopeless situations, each caught in their individual cycles of abuse and poverty.
At the start, Virgil Bliss (Clint Jordan), recently paroled after time in prison for violent crime, enters a halfway house, bemused but glad to be free, fiercely determined to stay out of trouble. Wary of the manipulation of his new roommate, Manny (Anthony Gorman), a low-life hood and bully, Virgil attempts to steer clear of him; but good manners and old habits soon draw him inexorably closer. In a fateful moment, Manny takes Virgil to visit the local street prostitutes. On seeing Ruby (Kirsten Russell), Virgil becomes besotted, falling instantly in love. Casting himself as her knight errant, he promises to lead them both to a better life, little understanding the complications of her situation: a pimp, a bad heroin problem and a four-year-old child who has been taken away from her. For a while things look up: leaving the halfway house, he moves in with Ruby and finds a job cleaning toilets. But, needing money to buy her back from her pimp, he agrees to help Manny with a robbery. As emotions run increasingly high, disaster strikes and, consumed with rage, Virgil succumbs to his old ways – and the cycle begins again.
Virgil Bliss is a small, low-budget film and feels stylistically cramped; claustrophobic and confined, like the characters’ lives, and reminiscent in this respect of the films of John Cassavetes. In subject-matter – the hardships of a life with no money, and the difficulties of rising above a situation, kicking an addiction, or learning to trust – it admirably echoes Ken Loach. Unlike the work of both those directors, however, it suffers from some strangely clichéd characterisations. It’s not they are simplistically drawn, but rather that they (depressingly) act exactly as we expect them to. Manny, in particular, is a live-wire, marked as the trouble-maker from the start, and from the moment we see his mean, staring eyes we know that he is bad news for Virgil and will play a large part in his downfall. Virgil himself is at least harder to read: a gentlemanly southerner, deeply romantic but unable to control his violent impulses or adequately judge a character. As a junkie who needs money, Ruby’s character will take her opportunities where she can – which is exactly what she does. But, obvious moments aside, the film is a refreshing low-budget antidote to most of the overblown hype that regularly graces our screens and shows no interest in attempting to mine the complexity of character. Joe Maggio is certainly a film-maker to follow, sympathetic to situation and social cause-and-effect, prepared to play to the strengths of a story’s intimacy, and unafraid to deal with the messy sides of people’s natures and lives.