Director Phillip Ridley hasn’t made a film since the mid 90’s when he released the bizarre and yet wonderful The Passion of Darkly Noon featuring Brendan Fraser, Ashley Judd and Viggo Mortensen. Any fan of pulp horror taken in by visual flair and graphic sensibilities (passion, murder, violence, sex, beliefs!) would have loved that film – and equally so with this very different film about the surreal experience of living in a hellish east end of London.
Heartless, is strewn with many an aerial shot of the east end at night looking like the buildings are surrounded by fire – literally turning it into a hell on earth. This is taken a step further with the tale of a young man named Jamie with a heart shaped birthmark over one side of his face – living a lonely and secluded loveless life with his mother and visiting siblings.
With his father already dead and buried, Jamie’s mother is soon for the grave when they are both violently attacked by a gang of street thugs one night – hospitalising him and sending his mother on her way with a Molotov cocktail. It’s a strong scene, if not as graphic as you may expect from Ridley, but it serves to deliver the dark and sometimes harsh tone of this bizarre film. Jamie sees these attackers are reptilian looking beasts that are out there tearing people apart and causing violence.
Promising vengeance against these foes you’d half expect the narrative to go down the same road as something like The Crow – but the film takes a different turn – instead focussing on Jamie’s need to have a normal life and the Faustian bargain he is offered in order to achieve it. Here on in the plot thickens as he finds himself suddenly getting things the way he wants them – but having to pay a terrible price for it. It is also here that the film finds its funny bone with an amusing visit from a man sent to equip him with the right sort of weaponry he’d need to carry out his tasks, and also with his encounter with a male gigolo wrapped up in cling film.
Of course we expect the narrative to come back round full circle by the end – which it does tying lose plot threads left dangling together. Ridley is something of a surreal narrative master – and despite this only being his third film he is also a visual master. The editing is perhaps a bit off kilter – but only adds to the warping of the senses. Ridley also found an ideal leading man in the form of Jim Sturgess who seems set for bigger things, probably more logically erect things, but bigger nonetheless.