Writer / director Philip Ridley doesn't make all that many films, but considering his work on titles like The Krays and The Reflecting Skin, he's a name that should certainly stand out when you're perusing the film festival guides. Mr. Ridley's latest is called Heartless, and if his name in the credits hadn't been enough to pique my interest, then the film's strange premise and its rather excellent British cast certainly would have.
Perhaps best described as a vigilante thriller / melodrama with a colorful dash of the occult, Heartless tells the tale of a "marked" man called Jamie Morgan. (Marked as in he has a rather large and noticeable birthmark across most of his face.) Jamie's family is dealt a vicious blow when a family member is attacked by street thugs, and the poor young man goes from simple revenge to something considerably worse. Turns out that the "random" street violence is not so random after all, and the deeper Jamie digs into the urban hell all around him, the more he begins to realize something ... evil is at work. Even more evil than random, hateful violence.
Heartless is at its most engaging as the multiple mysteries start to pull themselves together, with poor Morgan bouncing from one nasty surprise to another. Ridley keeps the plot contortions rolling as his poor protagonist descends into a Faustian film noir -- and let's just say that while Heartless works well as a crime story and a thriller, there's also enough here to keep the horror fans appeased. It's a big-time genre combo that tastes pretty darn good ... for the most part.
Mr. Ridley does a fine job of keeping the audience on its toes for most of the film, but there's also a strange schizophrenia at work here. At one moment Heartless is offering something audacious, brutal, or (in one memorable sequence) truly shocking ... but at the next the film seems downright apologetic about its dark ideas. Beautifully shot, slyly compelling, and exceedingly well-cast, Heartless stumbles a bit with a stilted back-story that A) our anti-hero doesn't need, and B) makes the third act of Heartless feel a bit like a Hallmark Channel experience -- which is both odd and distressing since much of the film is a rather unpredictable and effectively gritty little thriller.
On the whole, the quality certainly outweighs a few pre-narrative missteps. Heartless earns points for combining two interesting sub-genres (revenge and occult) into one surprisingly original tale of violence and redemption -- but it's also got a soft streak that really doesn't help matters much. Regardless of the film's emotional flip-flops, there's more than enough here to keep Heartless afloat.