Way back in 1998, in the middle of a knock-down/drag-out with my ex-wife, I spent the better part of an hour browsing the immense stacks of rental VHS in Seattle’s Scarecrow Video, looking for something just weird and intense enough to distract me from my own life. The Reflecting Skin––which turned out to be a visually rich and somewhat disturbing piece of gothic Americana starring Viggo Mortensen––certainly did the job. I became an immediate fan of writer/director Philip Ridley, and was disappointed to discover that he only had two movies on his resume: 1990’s The Reflecting Skin and 1995’s The Passion of Darkly Moon, also starring Aragorn. I eventually discovered that Ridley is a highly talented artist, author, and playwright who simply chooses to spend his time focusing on other forms of expression. Heartless is his first film in 15 years.
Jamie (Jim Sturgess; 21) is a soft-spoken photographer whose birthmark-splotched face, neck, and body have driven him into a spiral of loneliness and despair. As possible suicide looms on the horizon, Jamie gets a phone call from the devil, who requests a sit down. Being the devil, he proposes a Faustian bargain: he’ll remove Jamie’s unsightly birthmarks in exchange for “a splinter of chaos”. When Jamie asks for specifics, the devil replies that he’ll only require Jamie to scrawl some sacrilegious graffiti. Jamie agrees and they close the deal with a handshake. But when the devil’s “Weapons Man” (Eddie Marsan) makes a house call the next day with a different assignment, Jamie comes to realize what we’ve known all along…a deal with the devil always comes with a twist.
For the first 30 minutes, it’s hard to tell where Heartless is going. It’s established that Jamie works in a photo studio with his brother and nephew, and that he frequently hides in the dark room so the customers won‘t have to see his revolting birthmarks. Mourning his father’s death and increasingly introverted, Jamie begins to see lizard creatures in black hoodies. They prowl the streets and alleys of London, they crop up in his developed photos, they even burn a couple of people to death with Molotov cocktails while Jamie tries to snap a photo. At first glance, Heartless is your garden variety “man goes crazy” movie like Shutter Island or The Tenant, and the first 30 minutes drag with the weight of predictability. But then Jamie gets that phone call from Satan, and everything that follows is indie horror gravy.
Once Heartless gets rolling, its bizarre plotting and lack of explanation sometime threaten to derail the experience, but Ridley has injected the movie with enough raw momentum to carry the load. Just when you think you know where it’s headed, Heartless throws down the hammer and cranks a turn. That crafty Philip Ridley gives you just enough information to keep up, at least up until his royal mindfuck of an ending. It’s a crazy ride, with a sprinkling of overall weirdness that’s reminiscent of Phantasm or Cemetery Man. When I’m craving indie horror, movies like Heartless are exactly what I’m looking for.