DIRECTED BY: Philip Ridley
FEATURING: Jim Sturgess, Joseph Mawle, Clémence Poésy, Nikita Mistry, Eddie Marsan
PLOT: A photographer with a disfiguring heart-shaped birthmark on his face sees demons on
the streets of London, then is drawn into a Faustian bargain with a sinister being known as “Papa B.”
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Not weird enough. Although the ending delivers a sudden load of psychological ambiguity, and the middle section contains great eerie moments and dreamlike images, Heartless‘ odd tone too often results from the uneasy attempt to mix an arthouse character study with standard horror film tropes.
COMMENTS: For better or worse, expectations make a difference in appraising movies. If Heartless had been the work of a first time director, it would be a promising debut; as Philip Ridley‘s first new film in 14 years, it actually arrives as a very slight disappointment. Whenever Heartless falters, there’s the temptation to ascribe the failing to directorial rust rather than to inexperience, and to wonder what Heartless might have amounted to if Ridley had kept up his cinematic chops all these years. That’s not to say Heartless is a bad film, just one that fails to live up to its promise. It starts off with an intriguing setting: London (in the near future?) is literally Hell on Earth. The urban decay on display goes way beyond shoplifting chavs and the litter of graffiti covering every public surface; the gangs prowling the streets setting little old ladies on fire are actually demons, wearing hoodies to cover their reptilian features. Our protagonist, photographer Jamie, is one of a few who has accidentally caught a glimpse of their real visages; this supernatural vision doesn’t make as much of an impression on him as you might guess, however, as he’s more preoccupied with his own problems, in the form of a disfiguring birthmark which makes him hide his face from all but his closest relatives. After a long, but not particularly deep, session of character development, things start cooking 40 minutes in when out of the blue Jamie gets a call from a mysterious “Papa B.” Papa B lives in an apartment in a tenement tower building in London (the one with the eerie green glow coming through the window) where he recruits new hoodie-wearing hoodlums to go out and spread chaos in the streets in return for the favors only he can provide. Papa B’s lair, with its distressed walls and bizarre lighting schemes, is a masterpiece of low-key nightmare set design; the entity himself is portrayed by a scary-as-hell Joseph Mawle with a narcotic detachment. Living with him in the flat is Belle, a young East Indian girl who seems to know Jamie’s family history intimately and immediately bonds with him; she plays good cop to Papa B’s bad cop, and the pair’s seduction of Jamie is Heartless‘ high point, dreamlike and freaky. Things cool off down the stretch, however, as the deal not unexpectedly turns rotten for Jamie, and the script dabbles in gratuitous jump scares and other horror movie clichés (including a victim whose incomprehensible stupidity makes him complicit in his own demise). A visit from a Satanic Cockney bureaucrat known only as “the Weapons Man” livens things up before the movie trickles to a conclusion. Suddenly abandoning the supernatural for a symbolic psychological explanation of Jamie’s torments, the ending proves unsatisfying because we don’t actually know his psychology well enough to respond emotionally to the resolution. The threat from the once omnipotent Papa B simply fades away, and we get a flashback to a maudlin speech from Jamie’s dead father about darkness and stars that illuminates nothing. Heartless winds up as a familiar Faustian fable with a trio of extraordinary diabolical characters (Papa B, Belle and the Weapons Man) and some wonderful sets (the mad tenement apartment, the streets of London glowing sickly yellow as midnight approaches). The results are worthwhile, and individual scenes are knockouts, but it feels like there’s a classic weird horror tale lurking inside this movie that just can’t quite burst out if its shell.
Director Philip Ridley debuted in 1990 with the Certified Weird The Reflecting Skin, the strange story of a troubled boy who believes his neighbor is a vampire. In twenty years Ridely has only completed three feature films, but the polymath has kept busy, writing nine children’s novels, thirteen plays for adults and children, and seeing three major exhibitions of his photographs.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Best appreciated for its sustained creepy vibe and sporadically arresting images, ‘Heartless’ moves from one outré moment to another, from one self-conscious allusion to the next (‘Donnie Darko’ and ‘Taxi Driver’). It doesn’t go anywhere special or much of anywhere, though it goes there in appreciably icky style.”–Manhola Dargis, The New York Times (contemporaneous)