Heartless (2009)

JUNE 7, 2011


For a movie that I found in three different categories on Netflix’s horror section, Heartless is barely a horror movie. In fact it’s barely anything, because 110 minutes apparently wasn’t long enough for writer/director Philip Ridley to develop all of his ideas clearly and/or provide a strong enough reason to sympathize with Jim Sturgess’ character, resulting in a largely weightless movie that’s too muddled for its own good.

I mean, right off the bat I was baffled at what they were trying to achieve here, when Sturgess’ character goes out of his way to berate a fellow photographer for ruining a developing session when the guy enters Sturgess’ darkroom. “This isn’t digital, it’s REAL photography!” he cries. A wonderful sentiment, but there’s just one problem – Heartless is shot on digital! So either they are very subtly hinting that Sturgess isn’t the guy we should be sympathizing with, or they’re not paying attention to detail. It’s our introduction to these two characters and thus a crucial moment in how we perceive them, and since the photographer angle barely comes into play for the rest of the movie, it’s just not a very good use of screen time no matter how you slice it. I was also distracted by the fact that he was singing a few songs on the soundtrack (the songs seem to have been written specifically for the movie, something I otherwise love) - was it supposed to be his character singing?

It also tries to be too many things for one movie. There’s a traditional drama about a guy with a physical blemish (in this case, a heart shaped birthmark on his face) trying to live a normal life, meeting a girl who maybe can see past the blemish and find the beauty within and all that good stuff, but there’s also a supernaturally-laced tale of a group of “terrorists” that are causing minor anarchy in the city of London, and how he joins up with them in exchange for removing said birthmark. And then there’s a revenge tale, as his mother is killed by some of the terrorists (who he more or less joins, a plot point that made zero sense to me and thoroughly lessened the impact of the revenge idea). Oh, and there’s some nonsense about his brother being a petty thief. The attempts to tie these various plot threads together are admirable in some ways, but Ridley never quite succeeds at meshing them in a satisfying way.

It doesn’t help that Sturgess’ character is too pitiful to be very compelling. He plays the role like David Arquette plays Dewey in Scream, which is to say he constantly looks like he’s fighting off a bout of diarrhea. And he’s a photographer with a birth mark... and that’s about it; we don’t ever know much else about him and then most of the 2nd act is just him listening to more interesting characters talk. His mom is killed before we’ve seen enough of them together to really feel his loss, and he seems to get over it pretty quickly anyway, as he’s fairly normal when the birth mark is removed and he starts dating the love interest. We’re led to believe it’s only been a few days, so his shift just didn’t work for me. I think the female character in Dread, whose birthmark was fairly similar, went through this sort of subplot with far more interesting results.

The supporting cast almost makes up for it, particularly the great Eddie Marsan as a sort of human resources agent for the villain, a character not unlike William Fichtner’s in Drive Angry. He’s only in one scene, but it’s one of the best in the film, and I wish the rest of the movie had just followed his character instead of Sturgess’. I also enjoyed Timothy Spall’s brief turn as Jamie’s dad, who in 60 seconds manages to convey the pain of a parent who knows their child is going to have a tough life due to a physical imperfection, but has to treat them as normally as possible so that they can hopefully build the child’s self-esteem and confidence, something the mother didn’t really get to. Unfortunately this scene is the last in the film, so it’s a little too late.

Spoilers ahead!!!

I’m also not a fan of movies that turn out to be partially inside the character’s head but never pinpoint the moment where that line is drawn. At one point I was wondering if ANY of the movie was real post his childhood (where the character was played by a different actor), though I quickly decided that wasn’t the case. Still, when there’s a debate over whether or not entire characters ever existed, it’s not a successful attempt at ambiguity – it’s just sloppy. If I had to guess, I’d say that he was just creating some sort of supernaturally charged conspiracy in his head in order to deal with the simple fact that the world can suck, but it still leaves a lot of questions unanswered (such as who Marsan’s character was), if that’s even what the director had in mind.

This is of course where watching on Netflix instant is detrimental, as the commentary track on the DVD apparently does clarify some of these things (as I discovered when looking up to see if the movie was edited, as two runtimes have been listed, but I guess it’s just a mistake or perhaps a PAL/NSTC conversion byproduct). But the stream doesn’t have this track (they even offer a language track option on NI, but I have yet to discover it being used), nor does it have subtitles to help decipher some of the thick British accents. Having all of the answers wouldn’t improve my opinion of the movie, since its faults were not all related to its vague storytelling, but it would be nice to know if I was right or not. Anyone listen to it?

Ultimately, it’s a shame I didn’t like the movie more. There are some interesting ideas here, and (again, assuming my guess is correct) I liked the Shutter Island-esque mental break aspect to the story. The London backdrop is always welcome, and Ridley’s direction of the occasional scare scenes was quite successful (I even jumped at one!). In other words, I wish I could be recommending the movie. But without a more interesting character to center it on, to me it just became a jumbled mess of ideas, with the film switching gears too often to satisfy me as a fan of horror, romance, or drama.

What say you?


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