Wednesday, May 11, 2011
Heartless: Toothy Youth Gone Wild
Written and Directed by Philip Ridley
In the 80's, hard rockers Skid Row put out an anthemic rock masterpiece called "Youth Gone Wild". The fist-pumping tune was their breakout hit and catapulted the band to newfound popularity. Unfortunately, because of the era, Skid Row got lumped in with the horde of wannabe hair metal bands riding the coat tails of icons Motley Crue. Skid Row was a bit different - they had a conscience. A number of their misleadingly simple rock tunes were laced with sharp social commentary. Setting themselves apart from the usual flamboyant rock metal histrionics, Bach and the band had loftier aspirations than rest of their brethren. One popular topic of vocalist/lyricist Sebastian Bach was troubled youth. Perhaps a little innocently, he warned of the power of unruly, rebellious teens. By today's standards, their take may seem to lack bite, but it's clear from the chorus that we should expect danger from the kids.
But wait, this isn't a post about Skid Row even though "18 and Life" is now stuck in my head.
Fast forward to today, and a number of recent horror films have taken up that same torch in a more modern design. Ignored by the masses for their context in the horror genre, films such as Ils (Them), Red, Eden Lake, The Strangers, and to an extent, Andrew van den Houten's Offspring, addressed today's destructive youth with disturbing, often nihilistic portrayals of random acts of violence performed by teens. Perhaps because of our access to unlimited media in the digital age, there's overwhelming evidence that something is wrong. Youth have always been cruel and prone to violence, let's not sugarcoat it. But with every report or article about violent acts committed by today's teen, we find it's taken an especially malicious turn. With it comes a much more pronounced feeling of dread for the future. Driven by hormones, boredom, and hopelessness, terror by teens has become commonplace on school busses, in classrooms, and on the streets. Indeed, the youth have gone wild, and in the most horrific ways possible. While the phenomena can be attributed to a number of factors, it remains largely unexplained. Therein lies the real scary stuff.
British filmmaker Philip Ridley (The Reflecting Skin) takes a unique approach in addressing the issue with his film Heartless, his return to cinema after 15 years. In his film, deadly teens are portrayed literally as demonic creatures. Clad in dark and hooded clothing, they terrorize the urban territory using molotov cocktails to obliterate their prey. It's a completely bleak environment, one that we often forget includes everyday people just trying to get by. We feel real fear for the characters navigating an already tough world and now facing rampaging groups of volatile creatures. The atmosphere of graffiti-covered, burnt out buildings serves as the perfect battleground for these forces to engage.
This is the landscape where Jamie (Jim Sturgess), an aspiring photographer with a large heart-shaped birthmark on his face, must fend for himself. Photography has always been his passion and fuel, but he's never been able to make a true go of it. He also has his own familial problems to deal with, including a juvenile nephew who may or may not be involved with gang activity. Soon, Jamie begins seeing menacing demon-like appartions throughout his barren neighborhood. After the horrific deaths of two people he is close to, Jamie sees no option but escape by suicide. However, after meeting a beautiful model named Tia (Clemence Poesy), Jamie has a change of heart and a new lease on life. Insecure to the point of paralysis by his perceived "deformity", Jamie makes a Faustian deal with mystical Papa B (Joseph Mawle) to permanently remove the birthmark and find love for the first time. Papa B promises him both, but at the price of creating chaos with acts of vandalism. Soon, however, Jamie learns that Papa B has other plans that include sacrificial murder and sacrilege. He discovers that the demons intersect with his own life in a way more complex than he could imagine. With Papa B serving as a surrogate father of sorts, he has unleashed chaos on the world to serve as a balance.
More than a social critique of youth violence, Heartless transcends and becomes a treatise on revenge, morality, and disillusionment. It's a film where the lines between fantasy and reality become blurred. Jamie goes through many painful stages from the confidence gained by losing his birthmark, to a vengeful man motivated by betrayal and anguish. Ridley is not content to stop there as Heartless becomes a meditation on existentialism. After all that's happened to Jamie throughout the flim, by the climax, we're not sure any of it was real. What starts as a fairly straightforward monster movie becomes an intriguing puzzle that would probably benefit from multiple viewings.
Hearltess benefits from a number of factors, namely exceptional acting, a rich, yet gritty atomsphere, and tension. It's an emotional film that feels like a true journey as the story develops and we see characters go through changes. Jamie generates true pathos, and we see his perceived shortcomings mainifest in ourselves. I found myself totally able to relate to his plight, and truly mesmerised by the moralistic landscape layed out by Ridley. It's nice when a horror film leaves you satisfied despite a wide open ending that leaves more questions than answers. It's a triumph of great storytelling over simple money grubbing exploitation. Ridley is an artist, and in creating Heartless, has allowed us a chance to glimpse into our own heart's darkness.
Heartless (2009) Trailer by Moviescan