Review by Sean Boelman
When thinking of movies that would get delayed sequels, you’re probably not imagining an indie movie from 20 years ago that not many people have seen. However, 23 years after the premiere of his directorial debut, Virgil Bliss, at Slamdance, filmmaker Joe Maggio returns to the festival with Bliss. More polished, albeit not quite as effective, Bliss noneteheless is an intriguing work of American independent cinema.
Bliss picks up two decades after the events of the last film, following the ex-convict as he lives a low-key life as an Oxy-addicted stablehand. Of course, trouble has a way of finding Virgil, as he faces an unbelievably tragic chain of events. While the movie definitely feels a lot more melodramatic than its predecessor, there are still plenty of moments that work quite well.
The biggest difference between the two films is that this one takes a much more lethargic pace. While Virgil Bliss was a ticking time bomb you were just waiting to see explode, Bliss is akin to a slow march to an end you sadly know is inevitable. The experiences are both quite emotional — just in very different ways.
With this follow-up, Maggio also swings bigger with his themes, almost to the point of biting off more than he can chew. The movie attempts to comment on a bunch of different ideas, including grief, addiction, recidivism, and more, but it doesn’t quite have the guttural emotional impact that Virgil Bliss had. Instead, it feels as if it’s treading on the same ground that so many other movies have before.
Gone too is the scrappy aesthetic of the first film, as it is replaced by cinematography that’s genuinely beautiful. From a formalistic standpoint, Bliss looks a lot better than your average Slamdance selection. A big part of this is owed to the natural beauty of the desert setting in which the movie takes place, which does quite a bit of heavy lifting.
In many ways, it almost feels as if Bliss was developed as a separate project, and then reworked to include the characters from Maggio’s directorial debut. The character goes by a different name for most of the runtime (the excuse given is that he’s on the run), and he feels like an entirely different person than we saw in the previous film. Granted, the 20 year time gap would explain that, but there’s not enough development on what happened in those decades for it to quite work.
Still, Clint Jordan makes the most out of the role and delivers another excellent performance — this time much better than the movie he’s in. Although some of the dialogue trips him up when it gets particularly stilted. Despite some uneven moments, Faryl Amadeus’s dual role also mostly impresses. She’s much better when she plays it low-key than when she goes for the big, showy moments.
Bliss is not as strong or idiosyncratic of a film as its predecessor, but it’s still an interesting expansion of this character’s story. There’s a lot going on here that makes the movie worth watching — particularly Clint Jordan’s excellent performance. Being that Maggio intends this to be the second part of a trilogy, it will be interesting to see where they go from here.
Bliss is screening at the 2024 Slamdance Film Festival, which runs January 19-25 in-person in Park City, UT and online from January 22-28.