In 1990, Philip Ridley made me a fan for life with his Lynchian yet utterly unique The Reflecting Skin. Five years later, he confirmed my admiration with the almost-unseen The Passion of Darkly Noon. Now, after years of writing plays and children’s books, Ridley is back behind the camera for his third film, Heartless. Welcome back, sir; what took you so long?
Heartless is immediately recognizable as a Ridley film, yet also an immediately obvious step away from his previous two efforts, which were twisted tales of Americana shot through with sexual perversity. This one’s set in the slums of London, and it’s much more overtly a horror film than its hard-to-classify predecessors. Demons in hoodies are running rampant in the night, incinerating victims with Molotov cocktails. Jamie (Jim Sturgess), a photographer, lives nearby and starts to notice the strange goings-on. His face is marred by a heart-shaped birthmark, and he slinks from place to place, also in a hoodie, snapping photos and feeling like a demon himself, or at least an outcast.
Once again using a wide, wide frame, Ridley finds beauty in the squalor and clutter of working-class London. The presence of the Jake Gyllenhaal lookalike Sturgess moping about in a black hoodie will remind some of Donnie Darko, and indeed Richard Kelly could be considered the American Philip Ridley in some ways. After a particularly traumatic run-in with the demons, Jamie is led to an abandoned building where his dad (Timothy Spall) grew up; inside is a cute little Indian girl named Belle (Nikita Mistry), who acts as an assistant to the malefic Papa B (Joseph Mawle), who may or may not be Old Scratch himself. Papa B wants to unleash chaos on the world to make people doubt the existence of God; he offers Jamie a deal: do some anti-God graffiti and lose that birthmark. Of course, “graffiti” turns out to mean something far gorier.
Heartless gives us such images as Jamie peeling off layers of charred skin to reveal his new, unblemished self (shades of Pink Floyd: The Wall) and a greaser-hairdo rent boy wrapped head to toe in cling wrap. Jamie also falls in love with delivery girl Tia (Clémence Poésy), and those scenes verge on dull. But Sturgess, as he also did in Across the Universe, sells his wide-eyed adoration beautifully, and we fear for what might shatter Jamie’s idyll. There seem to be a lot of meanings floating around in the narrative that may need multiple viewings to unpack; there’s a whiff of Jack the Ripper, suggesting that old murderous Jack might once have found himself in the same predicament Jamie does. The mysterious Weapons Man (Eddie Marsan) comes knocking, using a dowsing stick to lead him to the tool Jamie will need to write his “graffiti.” Jamie didn’t sign on for this. It doesn’t matter. Chaos reigns.
The movie, as I write this, is currently available in a few British theaters and on British PlayStation 3 as an on-demand item as well as DVD and Blu-ray (no word on when we Yanks will have the pleasure). The day-and-date release will probably ensure Ridley a far wider audience than have seen both his previous films combined. As a narrative, Heartless is less aggressively odd than The Reflecting Skin or Darkly Noon, and as such is possibly a good jumping-on point for Ridley newcomers; we long-time fans might be a little disheartened by the relative lack of such unaccountable visuals as a giant flaming shoe floating down a river or a fetus found in a jar in a barn. But any Ridley is welcome Ridley, and I imagine he’s a different artist and person now than he was twenty or fifteen years ago — aren’t we all?
The movie packs genuine scares, and keeps us connected to its twisty events with Sturgess’ powerfully empathetic performance as a put-upon young man in way over his head. As a Ridley film, its sharp straightforwardness may take a little getting used to if you’ve thrilled to his other work. As a horror film, it’s decidedly more original and idiosyncratic than the stuff we horror fans usually make do with. When you can, give it a shot — and make the effort to find good letterboxed prints of the earlier Ridley, too.