Thursday, May 19, 2011


Heartless (2009)
Dir. Philip Ridley
Starring Jim Sturgess, Joseph Mawle, with Timothy Spall and Eddie Marsan.

Now he's a movie full of great ideas which seems competently made and yet somehow manages to bungle each and every one until it ends up feeling almost completely empty. How the fuck did that happen?

The premise seems like exactly the sort of thing I'd be into. Netflix says:

Reclusive Londoner Jamie Morgan (Jim Sturgess), who bears a prominent, heart-shaped birthmark on his face yet can't seem to find love anywhere, makes a deal with a devil-like figure to get a girl [who turns out to be Harry Potter's Fleur Delacour, by the way, if you were ever interested in seeing her naked]-- but there's a deadly price to pay. After his mother is murdered, the newspapers say thugs wearing devil masks committed the crime. But Jamie soon begins to suspect that they weren't wearing masks at all.

So that sounds pretty cool, right? Guilt, disfigurement, violence, paranoia, the slippery divide between what's real and what isn't. That sounds exactly like the kind of shit I'd be all over, kinda Cronenberg-y back when he was a little more surreal, or maybe like if David Lynch made a movie with a plot. Except it doesn't play out like that at all. All those elements are in the movie, but for whatever reason the movie focuses on exactly the wrong things in the wrong order, playing up the exact least interesting things and barely touching on the promise of that premise.

For starters, the film is disappointingly literal. That dreamlike quality that I so covet in a movie like this is completely undermined by the fact that the film doesn't really tease us at all about the demons being real. It shows us one about 5 minutes in, and never backs off the idea that this is literally some supernatural shit going down. As a result, you lose the scary ambiguity AND the apocalyptic sense of a collapsing society. This would be fine if you played up the scary supernatural angle, but instead they continue shooting it as if it were a gang running around. There's nothing done to make this concept seem otherworldly or incomprehensible; Its just a bunch of skinny demons in hoodies attacking people with molotov cocktails. It's LESS scary since demons are so one-dimentional; of course they're gonna be malevolent. That's their gig. Human killers are scarier and more interesting. You got a bunch of murderous human hoodlums running around, you got to ask some uncomfortable questions about what you are capable of, how they ended up this way, etc. Demons don’t work that way; they’re scary when you see their nonhuman power and characteristics, which this film largely robs them of. So right off the bat, a huge part of what could be interesting and frightening is rendered somewhat flat and diminished.

Secondly, the whole Faustian bargain thing is ill-handled. The devilish Papa B is obviously supernatural, but they mostly avoid giving him any kind of mystery. He’s played pretty much like a mid-level thug in a Guy Ritchie movie, all muscles and mullet and exposition. There’s nothing perverse or disturbing about this guy; he seems more like a wannabe Tyler Durden than the devil incarnate. His plan is to cause chaos because suffering is eternal or some stupid trite bullshit like that. So again, you’ve got this potentially creepy, weird scenario which is just completely undercut by making everything seem very literal and overexplained. Even Papa B’s cool-looking SILENT HILL apartment looks diminished and literal. Director Ridley shoots it like he’s shooting a regular conversation in a normal apartment, and as a result it all looks sort of normal and solid, like a cool set instead of like the inside of a nightmare.

(on the other hand, I'm of the opinion that SILENT HILL didn't have enough comfy green armchairs, so this one addresses that issue nicely).
Which is not to say that it’s badly shot, either. It looks, like everything in this film, competent, professional, even a little stylish. It just doesn’t cater to the film’s strengths and as a result, nothing has the impact that it should.

There’s a ton of crap like that in here. The film somewhat boldly subverts the usual Faustian bargain business by suddenly changing the rules on our poor protagonist. It’s a cool idea which could serve to throw the audience off balance and make them feel vulnerable and out of control. But nothing particularly shocking comes out of the new scenario, and without clear rules for the universe we actually don’t know what to fear and consequently lose tension, rather than gain it.

The real dealbreaker here, though, is that the film is ultimately much more about the human drama than the horror. That would be fine, except that the human drama is laughably vapid. Jamie has to realize his true beauty was within, and there’s some insufferable crap about his father telling him that the darkest moments are the ones we learn the most from which in context doesn’t even make sense. It’s all very shallow, and worsened considerably by the fact that it’s all done with the subtlety of a shotgun blast to the face. Again, you can’t help but notice that the film focuses on the least interesting aspects of the story (and in fact, the whole demon angle ends up feeling kind of incidental. You don’t need a gang of eyeless demons to tell the story of the ugly duckling. I guess if you’re going to do a live action version of that story, adding demons is the only way to go, but fuck, kind of a waste of perfectly good demons.) All good will is ultimately killed by the end, a standard twist that you’ve probably guessed already, which pretty much makes everything before it kind of confusingly meaningless.

I know, I know, it looks cool. But trust me when I'm tell you it's the demon equivalent of big fake titties.

Which is kinda a shame, because the elements for a great film are there. The usually bland Jim Sturgess creates a surprisingly memorable, sympathetic character and very effectively sells his painful shyness. He’s a clenched up recluse, perpetually waiting for the next cruel blow to fall, and Sturgess remarkably shares his crushing internal pain with the camera. The great Timothy Spall fiercely attempts to impart some truth and conviction into his cliché-ridden flashback scenes, and Eddie Marsan has a dryly memorable cameo as the workaday administrator for Papa B. Though criminally underutilized, the production design is great, the demons are neat-looking (would have been 100 times cooler had they been masks instead of CG, but oh well) and there’s a few memorably horrific scenes (including one genuinely shocking one featuring a reanimated severed head who finds that things can get even worse).

In the end, though, this is a story of squandered potential. Fear lies in the unknown. The more you explain, the more you show us, the more you tell us what’s going on, the less darkess remains for fear to lurk in. HEARTLESS is a film so eager to make sure we understand what it means that it loses sight of the elements that make the journey worthwhile. It has its own magic tricks, but right away it wants to explain how they work, and -- even more damningly -- why the trick was done. We want to see the trick, Ridley – you can leave the rest to us.

A "flawless" "horror"... the "best" film of the year.

EDIT: SPOILERS! Oh yeah, I wanted to mention that early on there's this weird awkward exposition on TV about this crazy looking gang leader with some sort of elaborate golden claw for a hand. Inexplicably, he's named "She" (he's a beefy black guy with facial tattoos). But it's clear that (S)he is the leader of some other gang, not the demons. Well, since they made such a big deal about it you figure it's gonna come up again later, and it does. Jamie is in his place of business with his nephew, who owes money to a gang (long, pointless story) when suddenly She comes crashing in and attacks Jamie, who promptly stabs him to death. And he just goes, "oh, I guess I killed She," and runs off to be pursued by the other demon gang, never to mention it again. And that's it! What the fuck was that all about? I get that being named She is probably even worse than being named Sue, but what's with all those weird details? Maybe this thing is deeper than I gave it credit for.

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