Heartless, the latest from British auteur Philip Ridley, isn't the easiest of films to review. You can approach it as a straightforward horror, but then miss the psychological drama. You could approach it as a psychological drama and miss the subtext about violence, society and corruption - not to mention the more existential explorations of life and death, and good and evil. Because 15 years after his last feature, The Passion Of Darkly Noon (1995) Ridley has created an odd, dark little film, with all of these things and more. Released in cinemas last Friday and on DVD just four days ago, it seems this is a film without much backing or confidence. But that's exactly what it should have. Because while it's no masterpiece it is a film of stunning vision, which as well as being a tender exploration of character, also features a scene where a character has his face chewed off by a man most resembling Satan. Yep. Welcome to the world of Heartless. It's time to throw definition out of the window.
Jamie Morgan (Jim Sturgess) is one of societies outcasts, born with a large, heart-shaped birthmark on the left side of his face, making acceptance from the outside world hard. One night, after spying on the photo-shoot of model Tia (Clémence Poésy), Jamie walks home, witnessing a bunch of hoodies reveal themselves to be demons. Jamie is closest to his mother (Ruth Sheen), who is burnt alive by the demons as he is forced to watch. Soon after, Jamie is led to a mysterious, scarred man named Papa B (Joseph Mawle), a devil-like figure with whom he makes a Faustian pact. If Papa B cures Jamie's face, in return he must graffiti blasphemous messages across the city from time to time. Jamie accepts and after a rebirth by fire he is visited by the Weapons Man (Eddie Marsan) who reveals the deal is not all as it seems. Just as Jamie has a chance encounter with Mia and they fall in love, he may be forced to commit a brutal, unforgivable crime...
Horrific fairytale, morality play, love story and intimately dark drama all in one, Heartless paints a deeply personal dystopia with the dingy, fiery streets of London never displaying more than five or six people on screen at a time. It's an empty, heartless place and Jamie is its lonely soul. One scene sees him confessing to A.J. (Noel Clarke) that he longs for a normal life where he can meet a girl who actually likes him, and settle down with a family. It's in these scenes that we really feel for Jamie and begin to wonder how hard it must be for him. It's a devastatingly moving scene and only renders the first scene with Papa B even more terrifying. It's terribly obvious to us that Papa B won't follow through with his side of the deal but Jamie, an innocent lost in a world of terror, is willing to take the chance. Papa B lights a molotov, throws it at Jamie's feet and burns him alive. We open, seconds later, supposedly to a corpse, horribly scarred, features unrecognizable. The corpse stands up and walks to the mirror slowly. Then something very special happens. A scene that could have been played for gore or horror is played beautifully - as Jamie peels away the scolded flesh he reveals the new, handsome him. Ridley employs an almost angelic lighting and floods it over Jamie's skin. It's a literal rebirth and the exact second Ridley becomes one of the great genre directors, elevated almost to Cronenberg status.
Soon after his meeting with the Weapons Man (Marsan truly excelling in his one scene) Jamie is told he is to kill a man by midnight, and place his heart on the steps of a nearby Church (as you've probably guessed, the title could have any number of interpretations). Jamie finds the perfect victim, a gay hustler, who he leads back to his apartment. There he talks the hustler into a strange sex act, involving a complete body wrap in cling-film. Jamie then pulls a knife from his pocket, digs it deep into the hustlers chest and rips him open - blood squirting and seeping from the body onto the white floor...
From this point the film really starts to hop between genres, and this proves to be its downfall. Ridley is a competent writer and director, his vision is unique and he clearly understands the importance of character in relation to horror and also the codes and conventions of the genre. His early establishing scenes of Jamie and Tia's relationship are well handled but the later scenes become a little too soft and a little too mushy, all the while being juxtaposed with the brutal scenes of violence. The contrast should echo the previous beauty of Jamie's lonely confession and rebirth, but they instead feel clunky and reveal what I had been dreading - that Tia is not much more than a plot device. I'm not going to spoil exactly what happens, but it will be divisive. After flip-flopping between genres what Heartless really needed to do was stick to the strength of its convictions and provide a roaring, hell-flamed finale, but it goes the other way. It's a well crafted scene, touching if you invest yourself, but it comes at the wrong time at the back end of a otherwise competent screenplay.
The ace card is Sturgess himself, delivering a poignant, memorable leading turn that anchors the whole film. Also singing a few tracks from the soundtrack, this is his show, despite the constant invention and brutality of Ridley. Quiet, reserved and desperate, he instills Jamie with a knowledge of the world but seemingly no experience in it. He wanders the night streets, slumped and alone, coming full circle by the latter scenes where he descends further into a personal hell. It's a physical and mental performance and deserves much more attention than it will likely get.
Unfortunately you've now missed you chance to see this dark oddity on the big screen, but that shouldn't put you off. It's destined to be something of a cult classic, but as Sturgess' star rises, so could the popularity of Heartless. It's not perfect, but it deserves your attention and for all its flaws ends up being one of the most original, compelling films of last year. Just don't make us wait 15 years for the next one, eh Ridley?