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Fans of Clive Barker and Neil Gaiman should enjoy this odd and fascinating evocation of supernatural shenanigans in modern-day London--if, that is, they can forgive the film’s many clumsy and misguided elements!

The Package
     HEARTLESS (2009) is the long-awaited third feature film written and directed by the multi-media artist Philip Ridley, and the first to be set in his native England; Ridley’s previous films THE REFLECTING SKIN (1990) and THE PASSION OF DARKLY NOON (1995) were both set in the U.S. HEARTLESS is in many ways the most ambitious of the three, all of which evince a real fascination with the weird and horrific.

The Story
     Jamie is a twentyish punk living with his mom--correction: mum--in London. Jamie suffers from an ugly birthmark that covers much of the right half of his body, which he’s extremely self-conscious about. He’s also concerned about a race of homicidal demons roaming the streets. Authorities claim the demons are guys wearing monster masks, but Jamie knows better. His interest in the creatures, FYI, springs from the fact that they emanate from an apartment complex where his deceased father used to live.
     Jamie’s mother joins his father after being fatally attacked by several demons, and Jamie is summoned to the creatures’ headquarters in his father’s building. There the slimy Papa B awaits, together with his young Indian “daughter.” The supernaturally endowed Papa B offers Jamie a bargain: spray paint some anti-Christian graffiti and his birthmark will vanish. Jamie accepts the offer…and is promptly set on fire, leaving a lot of charred flesh that he peels off to reveal blemish-free skin.
     This inspires a burst of confidence in the formerly skittish Jamie, and he quickly strikes up a relationship with the attractive Tia. But his Faustian bargain turns out to entail much more that he initially thought: as informed by an officious suit-wearing officer who unexpectedly turns up at Jamie’s apartment one day, he’ll have to commit a murder and deposit the victim’s heart on the steps of a church. Jamie is understandably reluctant to follow through, but after being telepathically beaten up by Papa B he relents.
     The designated victim is an obnoxious male prostitute who Jamie, in an ostensible bondage ritual, wraps in cling wrap. This effectively immobilizes the chump, rendering the killing and heart-ripping easier for Jamie. But Papa B isn’t happy: Jamie is apparently spending too much time with Papa B’s so-called daughter, and so Jamie is ordered to kill another person: Tia, the woman he loves!

The Direction
     There was a 14 year gap between HEARTLESS and Philip Ridley’s previous film THE PASSION OF DARKLY NOON, which may explain the present film’s distracting clunkiness. It’s erratically paced, overstuffed and at least 10-15 minutes too long, with a difficult-to-follow underworld subplot (which somehow involves the protagonist, his best friend and his newfound girlfriend) that bogs down the narrative to no good purpose. There are moments of real beauty and artistry, but also many laughably pretentious elements (such as a ridiculous jump cut from Jamie in a dark hallway to him in his mother’s brightly lit kitchen). As for the lead performance of Jim Sturgess, it’s only fitfully affecting: he’s a little too one-note, with a severely limited retinue of facial expressions.
     Yet it’s a rare movie, particularly these days, that can be said to have too much going for it. That’s definitely the case with HEARTLESS, which may be flawed but has enough energy and inspiration to fill three ordinary films. Let’s hope it doesn’t take Philip Ridley another 14 years to turn out his next feature!

Vital Statistics

CrossDay Productions Ltd./IFC Midnight

Director: Philip Ridley
Producers: Pippa Cross, Richard Raymond
Screenplay: Philip Ridley
Cinematography: Matt Gray
Editing: Chris Gill Paul Knight
Cast: Jim Sturgess, Noel Clarke, Clemence Poesy, Eddie Marsan, Timothy Spall, Luke Treadway, Justin Salinger, Fraser Ayres, Ruth Sheen, Joseph Mawle