Jamie Morgan (Jim Sturgess) is a lonely soul. Though close to his family, particularly his mother and always thinking about his deceased father, he longs for a family of his own. Blighted by extensive birthmarks, he has always found it hard to build relationships, particularly in the oppressive atmosphere of London's East End. One night it becomes clear that true evil lies beneath the surface of this 'world gone mad' and when tragic events take place, Jamie ventures deeper into London's hellish underbelly, encountering sinister overlord Papa B (Joseph Mawle).
The idea of the big city, especially during these 'uncertain times', as masking something far more disturbing is certainly an interesting premise (Hellraiser meets The Matrix, if you will) and combined with the 'hoodie horror' motif that worked to grim and upsetting effect in Eden Lake (less so in the rather silly and obvious portrayal of 'yoofs' in Harry Brown), Philip Ridley's film certainly has a rich backdrop to set the action. Moreover, while Heartless explores familiar genre ideas as madness, guilt, and society's ills incarnate, there is certainly enough going on to keep it interesting so as not to leave it feeling stale (no more creepy kids, wise beyond their years, though - almost as bad and as pointless as bleeding psychics).
Where Heartless becomes unstuck though is in its wildly shifting tone and direction. Choppy, rushed editing is partly to blame for the scattershot story-telling, but Ridley's claim that the film's bitty nature is to relfect Jamie's increasingly fractured psychological state seems more of an excuse for him to use disparate ideas he'd accumulated over the years rather than some grand film-making intention. Indeed, Ridley describes film-making as an 'explosion in reverse', where pieces of shiny shrapnel come together to form a, hopefully, cohesive whole. In this case, it didn't work.
The performances are fine, with Sturgess a believable lead, plus sound support from Noel Clarke, Clémence Poésy, and Timothy Spall on cameo duties, and it often looks the business, with some equally horrific and beautiful moments. But it too readily mixes serious drama and emotional upset with naive sentimentality and laboured sermonising, all to a frequently invasive made-for-film soundtrack. It's strange then that the film's two very best scenes are when it cuts loose and has some fun, with a couple of darkly comic sequences around the midway point, particularly the excellent Eddie Marsan's brilliant turn as 'Weapons Man'. But soon the giggles become unintentional and it all gets twisty, murky and silly again.
For a British genre film on a limited budget, Heartless certainly makes the most of its resources, with some very neat special effects and make-up, an undeniably arresting look, and a fair amount of talent on-screen. Unfortunately, it brings to mind the ambitious but abysmal Franklyn, as it too often becomes bogged down in its own po-faced ideas and convolusions - yet, it is certainly the far better film. For those willing to put up with occasional naffness and a peculiar sense of narrative flow and mood, there is still much to like within Heartless, but a whole-hearted recommendation is a hard one to make.
Heartless is released in UK cinemas May 21st, followed by a DVD/Blu-Ray/Download release on May 24th.