'Heartless': A Devilish Deal, And A Missed Opportunity When insecure Jamie discovers demons in London's East End, their leader offers to remove the birthmark on his face. (For a price, of course.) A horror film uncomfortable in its own genre, Heartless has one great scene -- but not enough nerve to pursue the ideas it suggests.
NPR logo 'Heartless': A Devilish Deal, And A Missed Opportunity



'Heartless': A Devilish Deal, And A Missed Opportunity

Soul For Sale? Jim Sturgess stars as Jamie, a young man who makes a deal with the demonic Papa B (Joseph Mawle): Papa B will remove the heart-shaped birthmark that covers half of Jamie's face, in exchange for just a few favors. IFC Films hide caption

toggle caption
IFC Films


  • Director: Philip Ridley
  • Genre: Drama/Thriller
  • Running Time: 110 minutes

Not rated

With: Jim Sturgess, Clemence Poesy, Noel Clarke, Joseph Mawle, Eddie Marsan

Sometimes one great scene causes an entire movie to snap into focus -- and not necessarily in a way that's flattering to the other scenes around it. Roughly halfway through the moody British horror film Heartless, the fine character actor Eddie Marsan -- perhaps best known as Sally Hawkins' unhinged driving instructor in Mike Leigh's Happy Go Lucky -- turns up as "Weapons Man," an unholy functionary tasked with giving the devil's servants their assignments. His purpose? To make sure the chaos created by one person "doesn't clash with other elements of chaos in the area." Behold the banality of evil!

Squeezed into formal wear, Marsan carries himself like a seasoned insurance salesman, tossing around pleasantries about his wife's love of yucca plants and lavender baths before getting down to the business at hand. When he finally informs our hero what his boss requires of him -- "One brutal murder. How's that sound?" -- the shock of it is undercut by his cheery nonchalance. It's a surprising, hilarious, electrifying scene, not least because the hour leading up to it is so determinedly portentous and glum. The presence of Weapons Man suggests a lively dark comedy about the bureaucratic hassles that affect even the Dark Lord's business.

Sadly, the movie surrounding Marsan's one-scene wonder lacks the same purposeful zing, settling instead for a murky combination of beastie genre thriller and urban crime metaphor. Jim Sturgess, the handsome young star of 21 and Across The Universe, plays Jamie, a timid shutterbug who still lives in a dreary London flat with his mother. The source of his crippling insecurity is a heart-shaped birthmark on the left side of his face, which attracts ridicule from bullies and robs him of the confidence necessary to even approach a woman.

Clemence Poesy plays Tia, the young woman with whom Jamie hopes finally to be happy. IFC Films hide caption

toggle caption
IFC Films

Clemence Poesy plays Tia, the young woman with whom Jamie hopes finally to be happy.

IFC Films

While shooting photos in the seedier corners of the East End, Jamie stumbles onto hooded street toughs who actually, as he will come to discover, are demons. After a pack of them ambush and kill his mother at a bus stop, Jamie gets summoned to an abandoned tenement, where Papa B (Joseph Mawle), their ringleader and the self-proclaimed "patron saint of random violence," offers him a Faustian bargain: Should Jamie agree to tag a few walls with anti-God graffiti at the time of his choosing, Papa B will remove the birthmark and give Jamie a shot at real happiness.

Working for the first time in over a decade, writer-director Phillip Ridley, who made the confounding (but beloved by some) 1990 mood piece The Reflecting Skin, seems like he's trying too hard to make up for lost time. What begins as a supernatural evocation of street toughs run amok -- think the young thugs of Harry Brown, only with razor-sharp fangs -- mushrooms into an unfocused, lugubrious odyssey that dabbles in family melodrama, philosophical good-vs.-evil musings and the occasional disembowelment.

Heartless seems eternally at war with its own genre, unwilling to succumb to bloody mayhem yet neither smart nor coherent enough to transcend horror convention. Marsan's performance suggests a different path, but Ridley declines to pursue it, choosing instead to marinate in Jamie's mopey anguish as the devil takes him by the hand. No prizes for guessing where this one is headed: Those Faustian bargains never were what they're cracked up to be.