Written and Directed by: Phillip Ridley
Starring: Jim Sturgess, Clemence Posey, and Noel Clarke
Reviewed by: Brett G.
ďOnly suffering can be eternal.Ē
Making a deal with the devil and being introduced to his kingdom of horror is the stuff of timeless tales. Itís been told and re-told, often appropriated to reflect the changing times. Director Phillip Ridley takes the kernel of the Faust story and drops it right in the middle of a modern urban and moral decay with Heartless. The result is something uniquely British in its violent, occult-tinged musing on obsession, regret, and revenge.
Jamie Morgan was born with a distinctive, heart-shaped birth mark on his face thatís been the bane of his existence since he was a boy. He blames the mark for his failure to live out a normal, ideal life that would include a wife and children. Heís also haunted by his fatherís death from ten years earlier; now left with only his mother, his brother, and his nephew, Jamie sees a world thatís falling apart due to constant, random violence. When he and his family become a victim of this violence, heís forced down a path that will force him to confront the demonic force behind all the chaos. Heís then given the opportunity to live the perfect life heís always desired, but it comes with a very steep price.
A nice mish-mash of other works, Heartless forges something fairly unique in a well-worn genre. It carries a sort of Lynchian setup that explores the seedy underbelly of the world, but itís infused with an aesthetic reminiscent of Barker. The result is something of a dark fairly tale with a sinister sense of magical realism: demons roam the streets, and our demonic antagonist (the self-proclaimed patron saint of random violence) lives in the darkened corner of an apartment building. It sounds absurd, but the filmís sense of dread makes it an easy concept to swallow. With so much evil in the world, should we really be that surprised that a supernatural force orchestrates it all?
If anything, the film features an interesting conception of evil. The devil himself operates here as some sort of mafia don, ordering perverse ďhitsĒ in the form of evil acts. He even has grandiose claims of having ushered in the 20th century with Jack the Ripper and gas chambers. And while this sounds apocalyptic in scope, the film actually ends up being a rather intimate experience. The battle for good and evil doesnít take place on a blood-soaked battlefield; instead, Jamie himself is the site of the battle, which unfolds via several moral quandaries. This conflict is effective enough, as the primal nature of the tale manages to be universal, particularly since Jamie himself is a fine, empathetic moral center.
Ridley has spent 15 years away from the camera, but itís hard to tell that. His keen direction here allows the film to unveil itself in an understated, reserved fashion. A sense of melancholy pervades nearly every scene, save for those few brief moments where Jamieís ideal seems to become reality. Even then, though, one canít shake the sinister forces felt operating in the background. Visually, the film is a treat, as thereís a layer of grime and grit lavished on for much of the film to match the bleak plot proceedings. Itís like a dark, urban nightmare that creepily sprawls out, and it literally offers very few rays of sunshine to brighten things up.
That dreariness might be the filmís most telling quality as a piece of horror. Its scares are generally cerebral and nightmarish, offering up a variety of bizarre images that aim to unsettle. Most of these hit their mark and complement the nicely layered and symbolic narrative that leaves you plenty to chew on. Most surprising is the fact that, for all its terror and violence (one scene is a particularly heart-wrenching show-stopper), Heartless manages to have a heart. This seemingly flies in the face of the unyielding darkness, but it somehow works. Itís perhaps a bit sugary-sweet, but it reminds us that redemption and solace can exist for even the most demon-plagued minds.
Armed with a nice character arc and some fine performances, Heartless delivers a well-spun tale that feels like a distant cousin to Hellraiser. Fans of that filmís treatment of depravity and self-punishment will find some obvious parallels here. The curious wonít have to wait long for it, either--IFC will be giving the film a limited theatrical release on November 19th, and the film will be hitting the on-demand circuit a week later. Itíll also be a keeper when it hits DVD as well. Buy it!
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