If I had to describe Philip Ridley’s new psychological horror mindbender Heartless in one sentence I guess I’d have to say it plays like a cross between Jacob’s Ladder, Constantine (only the good bits), and Vanilla Sky. If you think I’ve given anything away with that description, think again, as that only really describes the film’s first act. After that, things get really crazy!
Jim Sturgess stars as Jamie Morgan, an introverted twenty-something with a rather obvious birthmark that covers a good chunk of the left side of his face and body. Jamie’s spends most of his time hunkered down in his brother’s darkroom, or rushing through London in a hooded sweatshirt, keeping to the periphery, and snapping photos (a hobby passed down to he and his sibling by their late dad) of people doing the kinds of things he can only dream about. He’s the consummate outsider, but something’s about to happen to draw him back in.
While on his way home one evening, Jamie happens upon what, at first, appears to be a young man wearing a hooded sweatshirt and some sort of hideous mask. Jamie is drawn to him for some reason, and follows him down a dark alleyway where he watches as the young man joins two other similarly attired boys standing around a fire. The boys are howling and shrieking, throwing bottles at the walls and dancing around the fire as though taking part in some sort of tribal ritual. Jamie can’t resist snapping a few shots, but, when one of the boys notices him and steps out of the shadows, Jamie sees that these aren’t boys at all. They’re not even human!
Jamie flees back to the flat that he shares with his mother, shaken yet still not quite sure what it was that he saw, if anything at all. Later that evening, however, he hears a report on the local news describing a grisly attack on a man and his son by what witnesses described as gang of hooded thugs who hurled Molotov cocktails at their victims, burning them to death. Certain that he bore witness to the crime, Jamie is just as convinced that the creatures will come for him next. Complicating matters are both the arrival of new neighbor, A.J. (Noel Clarke) – a former gangbanger who wants to bring Jamie out of his shell – and a gorgeous young model named Tia (Clemence Posey), who embodies everything Jamie wants in life but fears he will never have. Ultimately, the violence hits home, and Jamie sets out to take his revenge, but, instead of finding retribution, Jamie discovers something else entirely, and is faced with a choice that could alter his life forever.
Like I said at the outset, Heartless is a difficult film to explain, and even more difficult to encapsulate into a short synopsis without giving away some of the film’s most shocking and surprising bits. It’s a film that’s at once frightening, harrowing, and quite touching, bolstered by a bravura performance by Sturgess, and the sure-handed direction of Ridley, who guides the film through its complex and truly fantastical plot, and films it all with a borderline hallucinatory style that lends Heartless the look and feel of a multi-layered, grim and gritty urban fairy tale.
The first act of the film is pure horror, focusing on Jamie’s paranoia, the discovery of the demonic gang, and the atrocities they commit against the citizens of London. I figured I knew where things were heading, here, but Ridley pulled the rug out from under me in the second act, as the film changed gears drastically, morphing into a darkly humorous and surprisingly unique take on the Faustian legend, where Jamie is forced to choose between vengeance and a chance at happiness. Things come to a head in the final act, where all roads converge, and the unsettling truth is revealed in tragic fashion.
While I was obviously blown away by Ridley’s film, Heartless does have a few minor issues, mostly revolvingaround pacing and running time. Personally, I felt as though the film could have done with a bit of streamlining, especially in the middle of the movie, where it loses a bit of the tension and urgency that was so expertly generated in the flawless first act. I was also a bit let down by a somewhat out-of-place dénouement that came off as a bit too formulaic for a film that, up to that point, had so successfully bucked all manner of genre tropes. Still, these are minor quibbles as Heartless is a psychological horror film unlike any I’ve seen before – one that packs as much heart and pathos as it does scares, and easily one of the best films I’ve reviewed this year.
Note: Heartless will begin a limited theatrical engagement in select cities in the U.S. on 11/19/10! Be sure to catch it if you can!