What may have seemed like a good idea to Asia Argento when she decided to direct the adaptation of J.T. LeRoy's heartbreaking "autobiographical" collection of stories, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, quickly turned sour when word began to spread that the constant rumors about the author's nonexistence were actually true. It turned out in early 2006, thanks to The New York Times, that LeRoy was, in fact, a creation of writer Laura Albert, and had been played in numerous public appearances by a woman named Savannah Knoop. All this around the same time that Oprah went on her tirade, exposing the James Frey "scandal" to the entire world. Blah, blah, blah, blah, and blah. What people fail to realize about writers like LeRoy and Frey is that they are writers. They are trained to lie, deceive, and make the seemingly uninteresting interesting. Memoir or not - autobiographical or not - it's the stories that should matter, and both LeRoy and Frey know how to weave some fascinating, gut wrenching stories. And, while the the DVD release of Argento's The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things may tout the LeRoy identity-mystery as "The Greatest Hoax of Our Time," it's hardly all that important when it comes to what the film has to say about childhood, parenting, and the brutal truth of a life lived under the wing of a complete and utter disaster of a mother.
Italian film aficionados, and horror fans alike, should know the name Asia Argento pretty well. The daughter of the legendary Italian director, Dario Argento, Asia has been in front of (or behind) the camera since she was merely ten years old. Dario put her through the wringer at an early age, showed her the ropes, and displayed it all for the world to see in his frightening films. Probably best known by the U.S. movie going public for her roles in the Vin Diesel actioner xXx and George Romero's Land of the Dead, Argento has grown into a fine actress who isn't afraid to take the risks that some of Hollywood's "elite" often seem unwilling to take. She's a rough-and-tumble girl that is so familiar with the camera, at this point in her career, that everything she does just seems to flow naturally from her.
Behind the camera, however, Argento stills seems to be cutting her teeth. And it's certainly a testament to her confidence and potential as a director to tackle material as difficult as The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things. This is one incredibly brutal story, full of sex, violence, and general debauchery that would be difficult for even the most skilled veteran director to pull off. It's nearly impossible for the audience to feel sympathy for Jeremiah's drug-addled (and clearly insane) mother. Add to all that the fact that Argento isn't just calling the shots behind the camera, but she's also got the lead role in front of it. It's tough to get behind a director when she's also playing one of the world's most unsympathetic characters. Argento, nevertheless, does put her heart and soul into The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things and shows that she clearly has the potential to make some excellent films. Unfortunately, this isn't one of them.
Upon it's short theatrical release, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things was criticized for its seemingly unrelenting penchant for all things disturbing, and for its portrayal of the American South as more of a caricature than anything resembling realistic. Oh, and it seemed that people just couldn't help but mention the fact that J.T. LeRoy never really existed, as if that really matters when it comes to the quality of Argento's film. The critics, nonetheless, do have some pretty solid arguments. The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things is, in fact, simply too one-note. It plows along on an unpleasant path and never veers. It's tantamount to torture at some points in the film, and you're left to wonder if there's any way possible that any child could have been hit with as much bad luck at young Jeremiah. Every single time he seems to catch a break, there's good old drug-crazed Mom to ruin the moment. If you enjoy watching an unstoppable barrage of heartbreaking and disturbing activity, then Argento's film is right up your alley.
That's not to say, however, that everything about The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things is bad. The three actors that play Jeremiah (Jimmy Bennett plays the young Jeremiah while Dylan and Cole Sprouse share the role of the older Jeremiah) throughout the film are quite a find. They give the character the depth and heart needed to bring about at least some audience participation in the film. If there's anyone remotely likeable in The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things it's Jeremiah, and a lot of that credit must go to the trio of child actors who give him cinematic life. Add to that the fact that, although she clearly fails to hit a home run with this project, the film does show some serious potential for Asia Argento's directorial skills. Given the right story, she could truly become a force behind the camera (especially in the Indie film circles). If you've got the fortitude to stomach sitting through The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, there are a few moments worth your time. Most of it, however, treads in the territory of slavish dedication to the film's one-note path.
**A Note on the DVD Release: A few early pressings of this DVD fell subject to a major error. Nearly an entire scene was dropped from the film with a very abrupt cut essentially wiping out what turns out to be a major plot point. Subsequent pressings of the DVD have corrected the error but if you're one of the unlucky few to have received a copy in this condition, don't hesitate to contact Palm Pictures and inquire about how to obtain a corrected version of the disc.
The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things is presented in an anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen transfer that looks exceptionally good considering the low-budget nature of the film. Colors are exceedingly rich throughout, and deep, dark blacks compliment the film's excellent contrast. Flesh tones are accurate and shadows are well delineated. If there's a gripe about the transfer, it's that detail could be slightly sharper at times and there's a hint of visible edge enhancement present for much of the film. Grain is noticeable as well, but it's hardly distracting and often helps give the film its highly independent look. This is, overall, a top notch visual presentation of a film that probably didn't offer the highest quality source material.
The audio on this disc is presented in both Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Digital 2.0 formats, both of which do an adequate job of handling the film's soundtrack. The 5.1 surround mix is clearly the win, though, with better fidelity, spatial separation, and a wider range of tonal capabilities. Dialogue is of the utmost important for a film like The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things and it always comes across as clear, crisp, and distinct on this track. Surround action is limited, but gets the job done when the action ramps up for a few moments, and levels are consistent throughout the film. This track is, nevertheless, an accurate and substantial aural presentation that serves the film quite nicely.
Palm Pictures has, wisely, chosen to give The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things a fairly packed DVD release that can only help expand audience knowledge and insight into this bizarre and disturbing film.
The most substantial (and interesting) feature is the Audio Commentary by Director Asia Argento and Producer Chris Hanley. Staying mostly screen-specific, this chat is nearly all Asia Argento (which is certainly fine with me), as she discusses the film's origins, creation, and eventual theatrical release. She steers clear completely of the J.T. LeRoy saga and chooses to focus more on her influences (on both her direction and her acting), directorial style, and relationships with her actors. She recounts some interesting behind-the-scenes anecdotes and gets along just fine with Hanley during the chat. It may not be the most entertaining commentary track you've ever heard, but it's an engaging listen and certainly worth checking out.
Also included on this disc is an approximately thirty-minute featurette called "JT Under Cover," which is basically home movie footage, shot by Chris Hanley, of Savannah Knoop (who played J.T. LeRoy in public appearances) making various public appearances at parties, film festivals, and literary readings. The featurette has a nice fly-on-the-wall fell to it, but ultimately comes across as a bit vacuous and unnecessary.
More interesting is the fourteen minutes of footage from the film's New York Premiere, which actually takes place after the LeRoy hoax has been revealed. Questions all seem to focus on the admitted hoax and we get to see Argento, Mick Rock, Producer Lilly Bright, and others effectively skirting the issue. A welcome addition to the DVD package, this is an intriguing look at how the press tends to latch onto one subject and completely forget that there's an actual film premiering.
Finally, we have the film's U.S. Theatrical Trailer and a nice booklet featuring the photos by Mick Rock alongside some interesting quotations about the hoax.
Real or not, J.T. LeRoy's stories still hold some incredible emotional power. The tales of misguided youth and drugged-up insanity in The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things are some of the most heart wrenching and disturbed stories you're ever likely to see. It's unfortunate, however, that Asia Argento couldn't manage to harness all that kinetic energy into a successfully fleshed-out film. Instead, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things languishes in its own depravity. It can't seem to get enough of its own unpleasantness and, ultimately, only works to alienate its audience farther and becomes worth watching as more of a curiosity than for its entertainment value.
Palm Pictures, nonetheless, delivers a fine DVD package that only helps to give the film a bit more substance. The audio-visual presentation is more than adequate, and the inclusion of some insightful bonus materials raises the value of this release significantly. While these factors still can't quite make The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things worth a blind recommendation, they're solid enough to at least warrant a rental.