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Review: ‘Heartless’

A Different Kind of Horror

Jim Sturgess stars in

Credit: IFC

Above: Jim Sturgess stars in "Heartless."

Twenty years ago Philip Ridley made the striking indie film "The Reflecting Skin." Now he has a new film called "Heartless" (opening December 3 at Reading Gaslamp 15 Theaters) about demons on the London streets.

"The Reflecting Skin" was one of those debut features that made you sit up and take notice. It had an arresting visual style that created an environment that was not quite of the real world. It was beautiful but also creepy and ominous. But that was back in 1990 and he only made one other feature, "The Passion of Darkly Noon" back in 1995 that I was never able to see. So when I heard he had a new film out, I was excited.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: IFC

Jim Sturgess finds some strange things on the London streets in "Heartless."

"Heartless" opens with a voice over black yelling: "You're gonna f-cking die!" Nice way to set the stage for what's to follow and you pretty much know it's not going to be happy. The story focuses on Jamie (Jim Sturgess of "Across the Universe"), a young man with a heart-shaped birthmark on his face. He loves taking photos and one day snaps a pic of some young hoodlums burning something in an empty lot. When one of them approaches him he is shocked to see that it's not a human face under the hoodie but something animal-like. These hoodlums cause a death that sets Jamie off on a Charles Bronson-like mission of revenge. But what the story seems to be about – getting revenge – drops into the background as the film contemplates other ideas like chaos, violence, demons, and the supernatural. The film suggests the possibility that demons walk the streets of Jamie's East London town. But as with the revenge, the demons are not really what the story is about either. The film simply accepts that there's evil in our world and that's a fact, what form it takes is of less importance.

Ridley creates a world that is mostly realistic. It looks like present day London but it's also more ominous and dangerous. The world appears to have grown more chaotic, more violent, and more irrational. Maybe the violence is random or maybe it's part of some bigger plan. There's a casual sense of the supernatural running through the film. Jamie accepts the presence of demons without much fuss. He's not too happy about it but he doesn't spend any time wondering if he could be wrong. So the film doesn't waste time trying to rationalize the supernatural elements in the story but rather it just presents them and lets them play.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: IFC

Jim Sturgess in Philip Ridley's "Heartless."

Ridley has a simple but effective scene of a man being interviewed for a newscast, and he says that he saw men with masks. But his young daughter interrupts him to correct him; she insists that those weren't masks. The father brushes her off with a yeah whatever. But we know she's right. Children see the truth and adults just dismiss it. Ridley even hints that maybe those fairy tales adults pretend are just stories might actually be real too.

Ridley has lost none of his stylistic flair during his absence from the screen. There are some truly striking images in his film including a man in a cocoon of saran wrap and an unexpected rebirth scene for Jamie. Ridley also plays with sound and music to build tension and play up the unnatural elements of the story. This is occasionally heavy-handed but for the most part works. "Heartless" isn't as dazzling as "The Reflecting Skin" but it's nice to hear from Ridley again after all these years.

"Heartless" (unrated but contains violence, language and sexual content) is disjointed at times, and its grit doesn't always mesh well with its sweetness but it's intriguing and far more interesting than most of the recent horror films Hollywood has been serving up. In the end it offers up something more psychological than visceral in terms of horror, and asks which kind of hell would we prefer: a living hell on earth or an eternal one?

Companion viewing: "The Reflecting Skin," "The Krays" (which Ridley wrote), "The Omen"

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