Earlier this year I had the chance to see Heartless at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival. After several evenings of double bills and even more nights of drinking, my first experience with the film was less than stellar. I was tired and unable to focus and by the end was left more than a little confused. When the screener arrived in my mailbox and I knew I had a second chance to watch the film I was ready....
This isn't a film you just toss on one night in the background. With some amazing cast work, mostly from Jim Sturgess as lead character Jamie, some seriously creepy demons and an intensely dark atmosphere, Heartless is a film that leaves you questioning what is real and what lengths a person would go to to achieve their deepest desire. I'm getting ahead of myself here and a brief explanation of the film is needed first. Jamie (Jim Sturgess) is a young man who was born with a large birthmark in the shape of a heart over his eye and down his arm. He's mocked by some thugs on the street by his home and doesn't have any close relationships beyond his family. His father passed away when he was younger and he lives with his mother. He works around his brothers photography studio along with his nephew where he meets a beautiful model. She passes by him and seems shocked by his appearance, only justifying his withdrawn behaviour because of the birthmark.
There's been a rash of terrible murders in his local area by a group of youths with demon masks on but when Jamie runs into them he realizes that they aren't wearing masks and are actually demons. These monsters come upon him and his mother at a bus stop and burn her alive in front of Jamie. He becomes determined to seek revenge but is thrown off track when a man calling himself Papa B (Joseph Mawle) offers him a deal. He'll remove Jamie's birthmark if he agrees to cause a little chaos in the world. Jamie realizes that Papa B is the man behind the demons in the city but the lure of a life without his birthmark is too strong and Jamie agrees.
Without that birthmark Jamie begins living the life he's always dreamed of, quickly beginning a relationship with the model Tia (Clemence Posey) he met at the photography studio. The little chaos that Jamie agreed to do for Papa B turns out to be a brutal murder and Jamie has no choice but to submit. His perfect life starts to fall apart around him and he soon realizes that everything may not be as it seems.
Okay, now I'm practically writing a movie here but Heartless is a film with a lot going on in it. There's a sense of two realities in the film, one with Jamie and the demons and another with Jamie and his family. At first two seemingly separate stories, they begin to come together by the end and if not given the proper attention I can now see how a person could be left confused. This is not generic horror at all and there's all kinds of debates raging throughout the story.
On the surface it can be a straightforward mix of horror, drama and crime but search a little deeper and you'll find questions of life, death, beauty and the extremes that some people will go to. It took me a second viewing to really appreciate the film and understand everything that was going on. Even though I knew what was coming, I still enjoyed the movie. There does seem to be a few problems with the film though and it kind of slows down a little too much towards the end before it's suddenly jacked up into the realm of insanity. It's the ending that left me confused the first time and there isn't exactly a definite answer presented. I've already read quite a few opinions on what was really going on throughout the film and all of them seem valid. It's really left up to the viewer to decide and I think that a person's own opinions will alter their impressions of the film.
While the story of Jamie and his deal with Papa B seems well explored, I didn't feel the same about the plot involving his family. His brother Raymond (Justin Salinger) just kind of disappears in the second half of the film, never to be seen again and there's a huge story involving his nephew that is overshadowed by the demons and Jamie's deal. In the end everything manages to come together but with the story of his family being put to the background it lacks the real impact that it could have had.
I'm sure I could think of a few reasons why the film is constructed like this but it wouldn't change the fact that I was left wanting more from certain points of the story. What saves the film from just being another arthouse flick with some gore in it is the performance of Jim Sturgess. He does an amazing job in the film and carries the entire story. His transition from isolated loner, because of his birthmark, to confident and happy after his birthmark is gone was very well done. There's a wide range of emotions that the character of Jamie runs through and they're all portrayed perfectly through the work of Sturgess. Without him the film would have been a mess.
It may be too much for the casual horror lover but anyone willing to step out of the forest of the average slasher film can find a lot to enjoy here. It's not a movie you can just throw on though and any viewer must be ready to really engage themselves in the story to be able to fully appreciate what's happening. I think that this may be its biggest downfall as most viewers will probably go in expecting a straight up demon flick. The overall themes of the movie may not be that original but the performance of Sturgess and some seriously creepy looking demons raise the film above mediocrity and it's nice to see a film that challenges you to think about what's happening as well as displaying some great moments of bloody murder!
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