Thursday, July 25, 2013

FI: Heartless (2009)

UK, 2009
Written and Directed by Philip Ridley

Atmosphere and tone are two of the trickiest elements of filmmaking to balance. In recent days, I've talked about movies that workor don't—almost solely because of the filmmakers' judgment of tone. We've seen examples of films that use tone to comment on story and character, and films that get lost in their own tonal pursuits at the expense of a satisfying story. Heartless, a dark urban fantasy by writer/artist/poet/etc. Philip Ridley, attempts to split the difference. Its (occasionally too) methodical first half establishes a chaotic, apocalyptic tone, which turns increasingly personal over the film's second half with mixed results. It's not that either element feels mismatched with the other, exactly, but that the more personal things get, the more forced and manipulative everything feels.

Jamie (Jim Sturgess) is an isolated young photographer with a port-wine stain in the shape of a heart over one eye. He lives with his mother (Ruth Sheen) in a violent East End London neighborhood rendered in desaturated shades of green, yellow, and black. Jamie's nerves are permanently frayed, due to a combination of his father's (Tim Spall) untimely death, the social stigma of his birthmark, and the gangs that control his area through outrageously barbarous, random-seeming attacks. Heartless questions his sanity throughout, especially once he comes to understand that the gang members are demons, their trademark demon masks not masks at all but their true faces. Whether this a delusion or the truth, it's an apt metaphor for life in recession-era London, a city that would be wracked by riots a mere two years down the road, and the film could have gone in any number of directions to explore this conceit.

Instead, Heartless increasingly focuses on Jamie's own troubles, particularly after he meets the satanic Papa B. (Joseph Mawle), a deal-making demon who grants wishes to the desperate in exchange for their adding chaos to the world (chaos that Papa B. claims is necessary for humanity's progress, though the film never exactly convinces us). From here, the stakes become personal and ethical, but the film loses something in just how badly it stacks the deck against Jamie. This unfairness is of a piece with the Faustian bargain trope the film employs, but Ridley's script hits perfunctory beats and feels overtly manipulative in ways that took me right out of the movie. Aside from enjoyable turns by the always-reliable Eddie Marsan and Doctor Who's Noel Clarke, the supporting cast feel one-dimensional and hollow, especially Clémence Poésy's bland love interest Tia. Though I came in really wanting to like Heartless, goodwill only goes so far; the film's muddled symbolism and unclear narrative trickery never let me care enough to want to puzzle out the motivations of its monsters, gangsters, and people. I can't help feeling my apathy could have been avoided had Heartless picked a better through-line with which to bridge its tonal divergence. If you want to see for yourself, Heartless is currently streaming on Netflix.

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