Heartless (2009)

2 Oct

Youth and subculture are perennial lightning rods for the delicate sensibilities of polite society, with each transmutation serving to stir the fear and suspicion that first rumbled onto the silver screen with the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club.

The ‘Chav Horror’ motif that was used to grisly effect in ‘Eden Lake’ seems to be developing into a sub-genre of its own, with the tracksuited ‘yobs’ as our very own version of the demented rednecks in American ‘backwoods terror’ flicks. On the surface, ‘Heartless’ sounds like just this kind of ‘Daily-Mail-reader’s-wildest-imaginings-come-to-life’ endeavour, with its marauding gangs of ‘hoodies’ terrorizing communities, gang disputes spreading beyond their traditional boundaries and ominous tower blocks housing all manner of iniquity. But this is more than a crass exploitation film, channelling tabloid outrage for a quick buck.

Jamie Morgan (Jim Sturgess) is a timid photographer born with a heart-shaped birthmark on his face. When not dodging the taunts of scornful youths, Jamie documents the neglected margins beyond the gentrified centre, rummaging through the detritus for pictorial inspiration. On one such excursion he comes into contact with a gang that is vastly different from the ones he regularly encounters, fleeing before he can investigate further. His foreboding proves to be well-founded when the gang kills his mother before his very eyes. Jamie’s despair at the morally bankrupt world around him leads to a meeting with Papa B (Joseph Mawle), who offers him a life free from ridicule, in exchange for assisting him in the creation of his Kingdom of Horror.

‘Heartless’ presents a hyper-stylized urban dystopia that bears as much relation to modern London as ‘Blade Runner’ did to Los Angeles in 1982; positively Dickensian in its portrayal of squalor. But this is by no means a criticism; the expressionistic lighting and gothic mis-en-scene of its doom-laden inner-city backdrop is so visually arresting that it compensates for any lack of veracity. The world presented in ‘Heartless’ is a landscape of the mind, an abstract plain filled with apocalyptic dread, the product of a rudderless subconscious, a fevered imagination seeing monsters lurking around every corner. Music is a useful adjunct to this, with David Julyan’s stirring collection of original songs articulating Jamie’s mental state like a running commentary.

The film’s unremitting grimness is countervailed to some extent by a dose of good old-fashioned British whimsy from the likes of Ruth Sheen and Eddie Marsan, adding to the ‘Mike Leigh meets John Milton’ feel that prevails. Sturgess brings an intensity and poignancy to the role of a man who must indulge in the corruption of the world to be accepted by it; a loner hiding behind the comfort of the camera lens like Mark Lewis in ‘Peeping Tom’ and sitting in his room plotting vengeance like Travis Bickle in ‘Taxi Driver’. Jopseh Mawle strikes a sinister note as the infernal Papa B. Though he serves as little more than a plot device delivering expository dialogue, he takes to the role with considerable élan, not falling into the trap of rehashing the typical Faustian tack of portraying him as a sybaritic sophisticate. Noel Clarke – the designated voice of ‘the kidults’ – makes a brief appearance as Jamie’s neighbour and reformed gangster, AJ; adding ‘street’ credibility to proceedings but little else.

The friendship between AJ and Jamie is something that could have been developed further; they appear together in a couple of scenes before AJ disappears, as does much of the cast as the film progresses. Which is the strongest indication that none of what transpires in the film is occurring outside the confines of Jamie’s head. From the stagey streets to the gaps in logic, ‘Heartless’ has the gaudy unreality of a vivid nightmare; like a Lynchian portrait of suburbia transposed to the decaying metropolis, there are elements that appear off kilter.

‘Heartless’ is certainly a cut above what currently passes for horror; writer/director Phillip Ridley clearly understands that the best horror is cerebral, dabbling with social, moral and philosophical issues while evoking an eeriness that is more effective than all the gore in the world. The film’s ultimate message is that horror is all around us; that Hell is human construct, a repository for our worst impulses and appetites, that we create the monsters and set these elemental conflicts in motion. ‘Heartless’ is that rarest of creatures; a British horror film that isn’t in thrall to whatever high-concept brutality is in vogue Stateside.

Would you hug this hoodie?


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