HEARTLESS - On DemandSeptember 29, 2010
On Demand Weekly provides new movie reviews of hot movies on demand and from the POV of watching from the comfort of your home. Today’s review: HEARTLESS, one of four films premiering On Demand and simultaneously at Fantastic Fest in Austin, TX.
When it comes to genres, I'm not a huge horror guy. Unless it's leavened with a little comedy -- think AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON -- the tension/release of horror has never really done it for me. While it doesn't make me run from the room, screaming, as even the faintest whiff of scifi will, it's low on my list of pleasures.
However, about every Democratic administration or so, a title will come along that appears to subvert the form, or at least approach it in a singular way. Such is the case, at least from my couch, with HEARTLESS.
In the opening minutes of the film, directed by Philip Ridley, a gang of hoods with reptilian faces commit a murder by immolation. Or do they?
Despite what happens onscreen, it’s impossible to discern whether what lonely, troubled Jamie (Jim Sturgess, ACROSS THE UNIVERSE) is witnessing is real or a ghoulish figment out of his nightmares. As Jamie attempts to suss out the increasingly bizarre occurrences around his East London neighborhood, he heads into a vortex that combines horrific imagery with genuine anguish and emotion.
A disquieting amalgam of kitchen-sink drama, monster movie and gorefest, HEARTLESS throbs with a harrowing intensity that makes it truly unsettling. Sturgess’s Jamie is a photographer who shuns digital in favor of old-school film, which he uses to keep alive the memory of his long-dead, shutterbug father. Spending most of his time in the dark(room), Jamie cloisters himself from the world, burdened with a huge, heart-shaped birthmark that spans nearly half his face.
The deformed, fatherless young man, living in a rundown neighborhood, with a lonely mum and an obnoxious -- and possibly criminal -- nephew harks back to the early ‘60s and performances by Burton, Finney, and Courtenay, fighting against their bleak upbringing and harsh surroundings. Sturgess plays his pain with the trace of a smile, as if the love he's looking for is right around the corner.
Unfortunately, what is actually around the corner for Jamie is a series of graphically horrifying acts performed by and against him. In an attempt to remain spoiler-free, I'm not going to give too much away. I will say, however, that the weak of constitution are advised to steer clear of HEARTLESS. Trust me, I won't judge you if you'd rather spend the evening with Scrabble and some chamomile.
For heartier souls, or masochists, HEARTLESS is an existential thrill ride. It faces down questions of fatherhood and survivor's guilt that aren't usually grist for the gore mill. Ridley's view of London is frighteningly stark, all deserted streets and menace. Even in the seemingly tranquil early sections of the film, there's an air of fear, that Ridley accentuates with little stings of everyday audio -- a car horn, a passing elevator -- that wrench up the tension.
Yet another element that puts HEARTLESS a cut above other films in the genre is the acting. Aside from Sturgess, who makes his slow, painful descent into madness intensely powerful, the performances are outstanding. Eddie Marsan, who recently appeared as John Houseman in ME AND ORSON WELLES and Inspector Lestrade in SHERLOCK HOLMES, is chilling as a sort of "contractor" with whom Jamie must deal. And Mike Leigh stalwart Timothy Spall plays against type as Jamie's kind and understanding dad.
As an experience, HEARTLESS is roughly akin to tasting some heretofore untried cuisine. Exotic, challenging, and definitely not for everybody, it offers rewards to those brave enough to endure it. For everybody else, I'll break out the game board and put the kettle on for tea.
- Chris Claro
Chris Claro is a new contributing writer to On Demand Weekly. He is a former Director of Promotion for Sundance Channel and now works as a writer, producer, and media educator. He is a regular contributor to dvdverdict.com and contributor to the Eyes and Ears section of huffingtonpost.com
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