Everyone knows the clichés: “beauty is only skin deep, it’s what’s inside that counts, blah, blah, blah.” Try telling that to a photographer with a disfiguring heart-shaped facial birthmark. His vocation and his non-existent love life say otherwise. Unfortunately, he apparently never heard the old adages about deals with the Devil in Philip Ridley’s Heartless (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.
London’s street gangs have become inhumanly savage. In fact, they are truly inhuman. The worst of the worst appear to be hoodie-wearing lizard-like creatures. Photographer Jaime Morgan got just a good enough look to know something seriously strange is going on in his economically depressed neighborhood. However, they know that he knows. To send a message, they attack his mother, burning her alive before his very eyes. Despite this shocking act of brutality, when their Mephistophelean leader Papa B reaches out to Morgan, he takes the meeting. Foolishly, Morgan accepts B’s deal: complete removal of his birthmark in return for a minor favor later, such as some sacrilegious graffiti or the like. Of course, it turns out to be much bloodier than that.
Ridley’s stages several creepily memorable scenes, including a wicked cameo by Eddie Marsan as the demonic “Weapons Man,” but the picture does not hang together well as a whole. Indeed, there are huge credibility issues at every turn. Granted, Morgan’s working class means are limited, but one would think he would at least price out plastic surgery before making the proverbial deal with the Devil. One would also think he might hold a bit of a grudge over his mother’s gruesome murder. Whatever, he has an aspiring model to woo, so why get hung up on the finer points?
If his character were not such a tool, Jim Sturgess would be pretty good as Morgan. He captures the photographer’s pathos and desperation rather well, but is stuck doing a lot of stupid things. Further undermining the film, Clémence Poésy makes a rather bland, underwhelming love interest-femme fatale as the supposedly alluring Tia. At least Noel Clarke provides some energy and edge as Morgan’s knowing hipster neighbor A.J.
Ridley shrewdly uses the demilitarized-looking East London settings to full unnerving effect. Yet, it is nearly impossible to invest in such problematic leads. Ending more on a shrug than a shudder, Heartless is mostly just a mish-mash. It opens this Friday (11/19) in New York at the IFC Center.