"Heartless" exists purely in visual terms. It's an art project not meant to be understood or interpreted, but merely gawked at, with the filmmaker in question, Philip Ridley, creating a swirling, vicious depiction of grief and madness, heading in abstract directions that are easily appreciated but rarely satisfying. It's a wicked film with convincing nightmarish imagery, but there's no story here to cling to, making this abyss of torment rather easy to disregard.
Jamie (Jim Sturgess) is a timid young man with a heart-shaped birthmark on his face, forcing him to withdraw from life and stick to the pleasures of his photography hobby for escape. When a gang of thugs with demonic faces kills his mother in a seemingly random act of violence, Jamie is ready to declare war on the world. Stopping him is Papa B (Joseph Mawle), a satanic figure who offers Jamie a clean complexion in exchange for a murder. Accepting the deal, Jamie finds himself renewed, even taking a lover in object of desire Tia (Clemence Poesy). With his life on the rebound, Jamie learns the price for peace is too great, with Papa B coming around again with demands that are more monstrous.
A celebrated artist, Ridley hasn't made a motion picture since his 1995 effort, "The Passion of Darkly Noon." His filmmaking faculties come across as somewhat rusted in 2011, with "Heartless" an ambitious feature of exceptional psychological disturbance but little narrative control. It's a visually exaggerated piece, a mix of David Lynch and Matthew Barney, with our hoodie-protected protagonist wandering through a horror zone of council housing violence, familial discord, and body shame, aching for social acceptance that will never come. Ridley summons an inferno with flashes of demonic violence to surround the character, bringing to life a Brit-flavored Hell, leaving Jamie with no one to turn to but the comfort of evil after all the good in his life has been eradicated.
While Jamie is a disturbed fellow with incredible pent-up pain in his heart, Ridley never treats "Heartless" as an exhaustive mystery. It's established early on that Jamie's excursion into Papa B's murder program (which includes an appearance from a "Weapons Man," played by Eddie Marsan) is an act of fantasy, brought to life by the character's frustrations with personal loss and his birthmark, leaving himself to invent a Faustian agreement as a way of deflecting his true misery. It's an intriguing premise for a grim fairy tale, but Ridley doesn't want to develop the shades of madness. Instead, he's designed an industrial horror picture that plays too broadly to suitably unnerve, baroquely depicting Jamie's struggles in screams and flail. The lack of sophistication here robs the film of needed surprise.
The anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1 aspect ratio) presentation holds the film's intricate color scheme tight enough, with all those reds finding position without much in the way of bleeding, while black levels are relatively crisp, keeping the film's extensive evening encounters in clear view. Skintones are a little on the flat side, with some image softness preventing a bold read of textures, though much of the exteriors retain their intended feeling of shadowy menace.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound mix sustains the demonic tension quite well, with a weighty read of streetwise tension and violent encounters, offering some directional activity as the characters work their way around bizarre occurrences. Low-end is light, but the surrounds are presented with a good sense of atmosphere. Dialogue exchanges have a tendency to cloud when emotions burn hot, blending with scoring and soundtrack cues, but the primary expositional needs remain intact.
English SDH and Spanish subtitles are included.
The feature-length audio commentary from filmmaker Philip Ridley is a must-listen for anyone vaguely confused about the movie. Courageously explaining the mysteries of "Heartless," Ridley is eager to share secrets and inspiration, reinforcing how much of the film was collected from his adventures photographing the less savory sides of London. Ridley is a confident speaker, careful to break down scenes into technical and artistic intention, making sure his listeners keep in step with the picture and its various tangents and overall unreality. It's a vital, engaging track.
"Making Of" (25:24) takes a more promotional, celebratory route of backstage exploration, with cast and crew interviews detailing the thematic textures of the movie, while praising the vision of Ridley, who shares his motivation for making the picture. Some BTS footage is included, but the primary force here is conversation.
"Behind the Scenes" (4:06) takes viewers to the 2009 Stiges Film Festival, where "Heartless" made its first splash on the scene. Interviews and autograph opportunities are offered up here.
"BIFA Awards Footage" (6:40) goes backstage to showcase Sturgess and his band preparing for their big performance at the indie film event.
"Audience Reactions" (3:19) catches moviegoers as they exit the cinema, isolating their initial thoughts about the movie. Expectedly, everyone is positive, some ravenously so, leading me to suspect most of this featurette was staged.
"Heartless" (4:57) and "Other Me" (4:29) are two live musical performances from Jim Sturgess.
And U.K. and U.S. Theatrical Trailers are included here.
Without any emotional hook to hang the ghoulish details on, "Heartless" is reduced to puzzling chaos, working through hallucinations and acts of betrayal that should register more urgently than Ridley allows. With plenty of shock scares and macabre visuals, "Heartless" does provide a jolt or two. There's just nothing beneath the surface here that encourages the agitation that Ridley is on the hunt for.