British artist Philip Ridley has only directed three feature films in his career. I must confess that I am not familiar with his first two films, The Reflecting Skin and The Passion of Darkly Noon, but everyone I’ve talked to says they are strange and disturbing experiences. With that in mind, I went into Ridley’s latest film, Heartless, expecting a weird, wild and haunting experience and was not disappointed.
Spoilers to follow.
Jamie (Jim Sturgess) is a young man with a heart-shaped birthmark on his face. Always self-concious about his appearance, growing up with the mark has left Jamie shy and withdrawn. He keeps to himself mostly, living at home with his mother and quietly photographing things around his neighbourhood as a hobby. However, Jamie’s quiet little corner of East London not quite what it seems; the area is plagued by gang violence at night. While most people believe that the seemingly random attacks are just gangs, Jamie soon learns that there is something much more sinister happening. His discovery will give him an opportunity to change things, but at a cost greater than anyone should pay.
Our very own Shelagh selected Heartless for the Toronto After Dark programme this year (read her review here), and I can see why: It was easily the most psychological film playing at the festival this year. Where other films were busy shocking the audience with violence or amazing them with action, Heartless got in their heads. That’s not to say that there isn’t some pretty shocking violence in the film—a man getting his heart cut out of his body is right up there with the most violent things I’ve ever seen on film—but the movie isn’t about that. The film is about making choices and living with them. No matter what your original intention, when you make a deal with the devil you’ve got to be prepared for the consequences.
Heartless is a moody film, the tone reflects the maddening changes in the character and setting. The film goes from a depressing family story one minute, to horrific Faustian nightmare the next; from idyllic young romance and then back again. Sitting in the theatre I was initially put off by the drastic mood swings the film goes through. The various stages almost feel like completely different films. But the film is about metamorphosis and this is the devil we’re talking about here. If anyone could turn your lonely, living nightmare into a beautiful dream where Clemence Posey was your companion, it would be him. All you have to do is shake his hand and make a promise.
The ending of the film felt very disjointed and confusing, but perhaps that was the point. The rush toward the bittersweet climax was, I hope, intentional. There are a few leaps in logic the film makes near the ending that only make sense if you go with a certain reading of the film and its characters. Ultimately, I don’t know that I really liked Heartless, in fact, the film actually kind of bothered me. Regardless of how I felt though, I was left scratching my head and thinking about the movie well after it was over. If that isn’t at least interesting filmmaking, I don’t know what is.