‘Heartless’ belies its title as an original, atmospheric and emotional horror
It’s quite a fare feat for a film, and a horror film at that, to conclude on a note that is cruel, shocking, retrospectively abhorrent and yet uplifting, emotionally overwhelming and metaphysical all at the same time. Naturally, a piece of storytelling simply doesn’t invoke these feelings without sufficient build up, and Phillip Ridley’s almost Buddhist slice of terror Heartless possesses the kind of atmospheric dread and genuine empathetic drama which should serve as a lesson to the current crop of young filmmakers pumping out depthless found footage pulp and pretentious vampire fodder each month. While things may get very convoluted, potentially even undecipherable in the closing stages, you’re still looking at an extraordinary ride that channels the spirit of Clive Barker only with, ironically, more heart.
Young Londoner Jamie (Jim Sturgess) has done little with a life overshadowed by the large heart shaped birthmark on his face, a disfigurement which has put paid to any hopes of enjoying self confidence or faith in the world around him, instead pushing him into a loner existence living with his mother and working as a photographer’s assistant for his brother. Through a series of strange nighttime encounters and passing remarks with acquaintances, Jamie becomes aware of strange demonic creatures that are stalking the capital’s streets after dark, elemental beasts that are seemingly being mistaken for a fresh and terrifying crime wave of violent youths. A series of firebomb murders of random citizens culminates in Jamie’s mother being killed, her death pushing him over the edge and prompting efforts at retribution. Before he gets the chance, however, he is drawn to the mysterious Papa B (Joseph Mawle), a sinister and ethereal presence who may just be the devil incarnate. The pair draw up a Faustian bargain, in which Jamie is ridded of his life ruining scars in exchange for a small act of anarchy. Using his new lease on life to win the heart of an unemployed model (Clemence Poesy), Jamie’s newfound happiness is ruined when an agent of Papa B brings him an assignment far more grave and gruesome than he had agreed on, one he has to carry out to keep hold of that he has finally been granted.
Tapping into an authentic sense of unease in society regarding crime culture, Ridley opts for mutated horror and nightmarish exacerbation and escalation rather than outlandish flights of fancy and the reward is an experience that manages to pack a hefty dose of gritty despite pitting Satan as the antagonist and his surreal, Giger-esque minions as henchmen. The tone is set from the very first frame, with the opening credits depicting night shots of London’s estates that go from visually mesmerizing to chillingly sinister with the disembodied shout of “you’re gonna f****ng die!” emanating from the shadows. At every turn there is a menacing edge to the setting, the power of suggestion coming from minor characters who opinion that their surroundings are going to Hell. The factor of grim isn’t enhanced by depictions of violence or verbal threats, but more by cranking up the sense of anticipation and danger. Before the films has even reached the sightings of demons or tapped into paranormal, otherworldly events we are on warily awaiting the scary British youths to jump into frame to dish out a beating to a shy, vulnerable hero who we meet as he initially intends to go on; hood up, head down and making himself unassuming as he wiles away his empty life.
It’s this slow build up which drags your attention into proceedings, and means that although there is a degree of relief at the tension finally breaking, cued by the game changing attack on Jamie’s loving mother, it is married to horror in its truest sense in a vile, needless and sadistic act of pure violence. What little Jamie has he has now seen taken away from him in the most brutal fashion, and his damaged emotional core leaves him easy prey to the big bad in so many works of literature, one who is treated here in an casual and understated manner befitting a film which reigns in its supernatural toppings with a necessary dose of pragmatic quasi-reality. The fact is that, by the time we reach the point where the protagonist suddenly has the chance to effectively be reborn as a completely different person, we are so in touch with his pain and aware of his character that only suffering the affliction of the title would scrutinize his choice. A mood swing that challenges the pre-set genre of the film follows, with pessimism and harsh apocalyptic vibes giving way to romantic drama and musical montage that tug at the heartstrings. Pretty vile to horror purists and gore junkies, perhaps, but hugely effective in-piece, and a brilliant set up to the return of the bad times with the introduction of Eddie Marsan’s Weapons Man and the next violent twist.
Showing the ability and screen presence to both lead the film and gain the audiences’ sympathy, Jim Sturgess shows why he would go on to become something of a player in the world of cinema with his carefully considered and unshowy performance as Jamie. He’s a sweet soul truly, one who has not an iota of hope left after a hard start to life has led him to an environment offering him absolutely nothing. Even though his loneliness is primarily the result of a self loathing and cynicism from within, it is not difficult to empathize with his plight. This is utterly essential to the plot, and means a great deal of joy can be taken from seeing a more optimistic, sharper Jamie post rebirth with face clear and horizons bright. Thus, of course, more dread and pain when that light faces the prospect of being doused if he doesn’t carry out horrifying acts to preserve it. The moral and ethical quandary isn’t shoved in the faces of viewers, but exists none-the-less mostly in the form of Sturgess’s natural turn and some impressive direction by Ridley. The garden path that the film takes grows darker and more twisted as we reach the conclusion, a course that is both enthralling and fitting by virtue of the early stages setting up so nicely.
The cinematography is superb, even in innocuous locations and scenes, while a brilliantly brooding score by David Julyan throbs under the surface of the action without becoming distracting or overly cinematic. Even when all hell quite literally breaks loose, the action itself is enough to suffice in raising the pulse, with the music restrained and Ridley’s camera work focused and not helter skelter. Strong supporting work from Clemence Poesy, suitably enigmatic and wistful in justifying Jamie’s affections as Tia, and Joseph Mawle, Eddie Marsan and Noel Clarke help to give the film’s universe a rounded feel, and supply the respective amounts of hope, danger, evil and sympathy. Where it goes may be almost crassly blunt, and upon reflection may present an entirely dour ending, but there is still some solace and the hints point at something very spiritual taking place. Even without the philosophizing, there is much to take from proceedings, however, both on a visceral and emotional level.
Easily Ridley’s best work and one of the most original and atmospheric horror films to come out of British cinema in more recent years, Heartless may befuddle and whiplash, but it certainly has the depth to draw a tear, a gasp or merely a couple of hours’ worth of satisfaction with, yes, plenty of heart.