Foreign Objects travels the world of international cinema each week to look for films worth visiting. So renew your passport, get your shots, and brush up on the local age of legal consent, this week we’re heading to…
“If there’s no god then there’s no force of good. And that means that there can’t be evil. And there’s definitely evil.”
Philip Ridley is familiar with the concept of cult movies. These are the flicks that come out with little fanfare, find little support, and then quickly fade away… only to find new life on DVD, TV, or even (once upon a time) VHS. One such cult hit is Ridley’s 1990 debut film, The Reflecting Skin. It’s a dark, arty, and surreal coming-of-age tale set in 1950′s America and stars Viggo Mortensen as the older brother to a young boy with issues. It’s a beautiful (but not entirely successful) film with a small but vocal fan-base. Adding to its allure is the fact that it is incredibly difficult to find and currently unavailable on DVD. Ridley made one more film after that (The Passion of Darkly Noon) and then stopped directing for the next fifteen years. And now he’s returned…
Jamie Morgan (Jim Sturgess) has multiple, large birthmarks on his body including a (vaguely) heart-shaped one on his face, and because of his appearance he lives an introverted life as a photographer’s assistant. He lives with his mother and the two of them still mourn the death of his father George (Timothy Spall) ten years prior. One night he notices a hooded figure on the street and after following him to a vacant lot he gets a close-up look at the figure’s demonic visage and razor-sharp teeth. Reports appear on the news of mask-wearing teens attacking people in the street and setting them on fire, and Jamie’s knowledge that they aren’t kids in masks is coupled with a growing suspicion that the creatures are after him as well.
The initial setup for Heartless is fairly straight-forward but it works fantastically well. Sturgess makes Jamie an empathetic character via his expressions and mannerisms, and it’s easy to feel his shame, shyness, and disappointment in life. He makes a new friend in his neighbor A.J. (Noel Clarke), but he’s too petrified to talk to the girl of his dreams, Tia (Clemence Poesy). And Ridley’s London East End is a character in its own right filled with sadness, rage, and broken people in equal measure. The hooded creatures are frightening in their pack mentality but also in the animal-like and guttural screams that echo down deserted streets and abandoned buildings. Jamie and his mother are attacked by the demonic thugs and she’s murdered right in front of him. It’s a strongly dramatic and suspenseful build-up, but then it all goes to hell.
Literally. And poorly…
Jamie decides he’s going to avenge his mum’s death and sets out to find the hellish hoodlums, but his brief attempt to go go all Charlie Bronson on their trainer-wearing asses catches the eye of a man named Papa B. And by “man” I mean a scarred, long-haired, leather pants-wearing Beelzebub-type of course. Papa B offers Jamie a deal… he’ll clear up the disfiguring birthmark in return for an injection of chaos into society. Nothing big. Some graffiti. A cold-blooded murder that ends with the removal of a still-beating heart. You know, the usual.
The wonderful Eddie Marsan makes a brief and pointless appearance as the weapons man, and soon the film’s thriller elements have all but disappeared as it jumps into romance then drama and back again. An opportunity for a strong moral dilemma or challenge to Jamie’s character is quickly wiped away with a few tears and a high degree of misplaced maudlin as that mishandled turn towards dark fantasy and deals with the devil signifies the end of the film’s clear narrative and the beginning of a jumbled mess. I won’t ruin the details of what transpires except to say that the character who initially engaged our sympathies quickly becomes someone far less likable and interesting.
Aside from a few gory effects, horror fans will be disappointed after the promise of the film’s opening thirty minutes. The drama of Jamie’s struggles and the loss of his father become overbearing and mawkish. The romance with Poesy’s character is slighted by way of montage scenes and insincerity. Any hope for an intelligent cautionary tale goes out the window alongside logic and the viewer’s concern when a series of revelations alters much of what came before and manages to make it all far less interesting.
Heartless suffers from trying to do too much to the point where it accomplishes too little. What begins as an effective-looking thriller quickly drowns under the weight of personal drama, Faustian implications, social commentary, and an ultimately unsatisfying ending. Ridley shows yet again that he has a strong eye for visuals and imagery, but he neglects his characters and his story to the point where we lose interest in them both. On the bright side though, the movie at least lives up to its title.
Heartless is available on region 2 DVD from AmazonUK.
The Upside: Strong performance from Sturgess; some striking visuals; Marsan is always good to see onscreen
The Downside: Loses its narrative way along with its sympathetic lead; pacing is disjointed in second half; terrible ending is no where near fulfilling