We live in a golden age for cinematic beasties. Vampires and zombies have been so ubiquitous in pop culture lately that they threaten to outnumber the living. Demons haven’t fared as well, though a handful of souls are willing to give the devil his due. First, Guillermo del Toro brought Hellboy to the big screen. Now, after a long hiatus, novelist and filmmaker Philip Ridley (The Reflecting Skin) returns to directing with Heartless, a moody, portentous tale of demons running amok on the streets of London.
Across The Universe heartthrob Jim Sturgess stars as a melancholy young shutterbug with a heart-shaped birthmark (symbolism alert!) who stumbles upon a street gang made up of demons. Soon, he and his family are endangered by dark forces, until he encounters a sinister figure of infinite darkness who offers to make all his dreams come true as long as he agrees to become an agent of chaos, causing cosmic disturbances in a world steadily going to hell, literally and figuratively. Alas, this is one Faustian bargain that doesn’t work out as planned, and Sturgess rapidly winds up in way over his head.
In Heartless’ first half, Ridley cultivates an aura of dread and paranoia that can’t hide the film’s plodding pace, portentous tone, or underdeveloped characters. The London of Heartless is dark, sordid, and unknowable, a shadowy realm of secrets and lies, but it doesn’t come alive until the great Eddie Marsan (Happy Go Lucky) surfaces for a game-changing supporting performance. Marsan plays his emissary from hell as a dry-witted, genial mid-level bureaucrat whose business just happens to involve coercing unfortunate souls into committing gruesome murders. Marsan’s virtuoso turn signals a tonal shift from pretentious atmospherics into a more conventional tale of a deal with the devil gone awry. Heartless gets progressively better as it goes along, and benefits from a poignant late cameo from Timothy Spall as Sturgess’ beloved father, but it never recovers from a dull first hour. Ridley is a master of atmosphere and mood, but his fantastical conceits require a strong protagonist who isn’t defined first by his birthmark, then by its absence.