Unhappily Ever After: Philip Ridley's Film 'Heartless'

Categories: Art Whore
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Lionsgate
Jim Sturgess tackles his demons in "Heartless"
Playwright/photographer/novelist/children's author/painter/filmmaker Philip Ridley is one of Britain's most talented artists, but he's almost unheard of here in the States. A fucking shame, mate, so let's see if we can change that a little.

My first exposure to him was his stunning debut feature film, The Reflecting Skin, about a lonely boy obsessed with the idea that a ghostly woman who lives nearby may be a vampire responsible for a series of child slayings in their small rural town. I heard about it via the underground-movie circuit and discovered at a video store a pristine copy that had obviously never been rented before. I thought I was renting an arty horror film, and that was true, but as is always the case with Ridley's work, there was much more there than you would have expected. 

The 1990 fairy tale for adults contains some of the loveliest dark imagery I've ever seen, and even 21 years later, I still flash back to the mummified fetus in a box, a man dousing himself with gasoline and setting himself on fire, exploding frogs, women cooing like birds, the corpses of dead children in golden Andrew Wyeth wheat fields, and murderous duck-tailed, leather-jacketed thugs, all of the images wrapped in the suffocatingly murky blanket of Hiroshima and child sexual abuse.

For a film that cries out for a full-featured Blu-Ray release, it's availability is essentially limited to old technology--a laser disc with commentary and old videotapes on Amazon; you can find bootlegs and bit torrents online, but nothing official has been released here in the U.S. I asked the director why this was the case, and he told me the rights were tied up in some kind of financial fiasco that he didn't see being resolved any time soon. (Full disclosure: I directed the U.S. premiere of Ridley's play Mercury Fur and got the opportunity to spend several hours with Phil in London over two different trips as we discussed the production. I like and admire him a great deal.)

Here's a taste of Reflecting below:


Ridley's second film was about the brutal British mob twins The Krays. He wrote the screenplay but didn't direct it, so while it contains some of his trademark obsessions, it doesn't have the tone of his more hands-on work. It is also unavailable on DVD in this country.

Also in DVD limbo is an uncut version of Ridley's third film, The Passion of Darkly NoonAbout a free-spirited young woman (Ashley Judd) stalked by a sexually repressed religious fanatic (Brendan Fraser), it's a hard film to pass judgment on, since the DVD version that I picked up on eBay was a truncated cut from Russia. Versions listed for sale on various bootleg sites range from 97 minutes to 146 minutes, none of them with Ridley's commentary included, which I expect would fill in a lot of its narrative gaps.
 

Having said that, Ridley's movies really aren't about the story, per se. At times, his films are closer to a pure cinema experience, with visuals trumping plot, dialogue and acting (at least in the first two films he directed).

The acting in his third film, Heartless--which is currently playing on Pay Per View--is his most accomplished, with a cast chock-full of some of the UK's best actors, including Jim Sturgess, Timothy Spall, Ruth Sheen, Luke Treadaway and Eddie Marsan (who practically steals the show as Weapons Man). The glorious cinematography by Matt Gray, based on a series of photos that Ridley took of London's East End, paints some of the grimmest parts of that city with a golden glow that's decidedly magical.

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Lionsgate
Sturgess in the full Kubrickian death stare
​Sturgess (who, to my mind, is incapable of giving a bad performance) brings empathy and warmth to his portrayal of an emotionally crippled young man with a heart-shaped birthmark on his face who strikes a deal with the Devil (slimy Joseph Mawle as a kind of rough-trade Beelzebub). That Faustian story--and the love/revenge/caper story that follows until the film's plot twists knock it into yet another direction--is a cry of anguish against emotional (and societal) poverty and the random violence that accompanies both. 

Ridley's genre films can't ever be completely pigeonholed into horror. They're deeply unsettling, but rarely scary or startling, downplaying the cheap creeps for a more complex, gray-area logic. Black humor, sadism and a downbeat ending are commonplace in American horror films, and Ridley's film(s) contain some of those elements as well, but the difference is that he engages our hearts as well as our viscera, his surprising tenderness and the complexity of his world-view frustrating to American viewers weaned on Hollywood's Syd Field story lines and grinning-idiot denouements. 

Compounding that, Ridley's art asks a lot of his audiences. I know that a reading list is basically anathema to a horror fan, but all of Ridley's films are heavily influenced by painting and literature, so a well-formed opinion about the film without an awareness of those influences is basically impossible. 

I have a region-free Blu-Ray player and picked up a copy of the British release of the film a few months before it received its negligible distribution in U.S. theaters. For people open to trying something new, I recommend the PPV, but for individuals who already know his work and admire his storytelling, the illuminating commentary--a friendly trip into Ridley's artistic process that provides insight into the origins of the characters and plot--is more than worth the cost of the Region 2 DVD.

So is it a surprise the film's eccentric, intellectual vision isn't a blockbuster? That it seems to be doing dismally at the box office here and in the UK? 

Not really. 

If the audience abdicates its responsibility to listen closely, refuses to look past a piece of art's more exploitable elements, won't engage with something out of the ordinary or simply won't challenge themselves, then a work that asks all of those things from its audience is doomed. Discussing the original production of Mercury Fur, Ridley said, ""It is a play about love. About what we do for love and what happens if there is a lack of love." The same can be said about all of his adult work, including HeartlessBut we'll never hear that message or know its truths, unless we give it a chance. 


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