Anyone who has seen Blow Up (1966), Ab-normal Beauty (2004) or The Midnight Meat Train (2008) will know that films with photographers for protagonists tend to play fast and loose with their images, leaving viewers uncertain as to what precisely has been seen.
Heartless is no exception. While every bit as striking as Philip Ridley's previous features The Reflecting Skin (1990) and The Passion Of Darkly Noon (1995), Heartless is in fact the first film that the director has set on his home turf of East London. Like Johnny Kevorkian's The Disappeared (2008), Heartless uses the housing estates and gangland haunts of urban Britain, where, especially at night, violence and chaos seem to reign, as the shadowy stamping ground for a particular vision of hell.
Born with a heart-shaped blotch across one side of his face, 17-year-old Jamie Morgan (Jim Sturgess) has always struggled to make sense of the viciousness and cruelty of the world around him, his only comfort coming from the stories that he remembers his now long-dead father (Timothy Spall) telling him as a boy. Himself literally flawed, and surrounded by ugliness, amateur photographer Jamie can only dream of a better life with a beautiful, loving partner and a child of his own, while in reality the endless taunts of others and his own damaged ego have condemned him to a life of misery, loneliness and personal demons - while at night he sees all-too-real demons, with animalistic cries and razor teeth, terrorising the East End's mean streets.
After witnessing the murder of his beloved mother (Ruth Sheen) at the hands of one of these satanic gangs, Jamie finds himself summoned to a meeting with a man whom he has previously seen only in his dreams. If the deal that Papa B (Joseph Mawle) offers Jamie is purely Faustian, the figure that he cuts is more Lynch-ian - part string-pulling, burn-scarred Man In The Planet from Eraserhead, part leering, bearded Killer Bob from 'Twin Peaks'. Jamie accepts Papa B's light-seeming terms in exchange for his own future happiness, only to discover that the Devil never plays fair, and that his new relationship with model girlfriend Tia (Clémence Poésy) and 'daughter' Belle (Nikita Mistry) will cost him dear. Jamie is about to take a walk into the dark.
"You keep changing the fucking rules," complains Jamie to the Mephistophelian Papa B. Some viewers may feel the same way about Ridley, who keeps shifting diabolically between urban horror, social realism, morality drama, black comedy, psychothriller and fairytale allegory (especially 'Beauty And The Beast') with no regard for generic fixity, even as the story he tells pays little respect to the boundary between reality and fantasy.
As parallel universes, paternal doubles, confidence tricks, masked doppelgangers and nightmarish visions all vie to mark out their territory in Ridley's labyrinthine narrative, no doubt some viewers will find themselves disoriented, but few will fault the writer-director for the scope of his ambitions, taking in post-9/11 anxieties, 'hoodie horror', mental breakdown and the theological problem of evil. Amidst all the J-horror jumpscares, there is also plenty of gallows humour (with Eddie Marsan, as Papa B's associate Weapons Man, putting in a particularly surreal turn), and if the 'redemptive' ending seems a tad sentimental, unravelling the series of events that has led to it might help viewers find their way right back to their discomfort zones.
This is a film whose very unevenness of tone serves to trap us, as we search for a narrative centre (or 'heart') that quite possibly is not there. The stars seen in the film's final image may offer the reassurance of light after so much darkness - or alternatively they might just reflect an indifferent, chaotic universe where bloody murder can happen without rhyme or reason, and be all but forgotten by the final credit roll. Either way, Ridley takes us on a disturbing, bewildering trip that, for all the familiarity of its constituent parts, converges into something uniquely strange.