This month on Let’s Scare Bryan to Death, we’re navigating a harsh world as depicted by eccentric storyteller Philip Ridley. I’m a huge fan of Ridley’s surreal 1995 fable, The Passion of Darkly Noon, but I hadn’t realized that almost 15 years later he released another film, the 2009 urban fairy tale Heartless. So, I’m very grateful to this month’s guest, Bede Jermyn, for bringing it to my attention. Jermyn is a fantastic horror journalist who’s a member of the Australian Film Critics Association, a critic and podcaster for The Super Network, and host of Bede Vs. The Living Dead, a podcast devoted to exploring “remakes, re-edits, unofficial follow-ups, etc. to George A. Romero’s 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead.”
Ridley’s Heartless follows Jamie (Jim Sturgess), a lonely photographer who has a heart-shaped birthmark that covers half of his face that makes him very shy. He mainly keeps to himself as he shares an apartment in a rough neighborhood with his mother, Marion (Ruth Sheen), and spends most of his time with his brother Raymond (Justin Salinger) and nephew Lee (Luke Treadaway). Amidst reports of masked street gangs causing havoc in the city, Jamie starts seeing members of the gang, but he realizes they’re not wearing masks but rather are actual demons. After the gang immolates his mother in front of him in a seemingly random encounter, a grieving and desperate Jamie finds himself confronted by Papa B (Joseph Mawle), a malevolent entity who offers to take away Jamie’s birthmark if he agrees to commit an act of chaos in his neighborhood.
A despondent Jamie agrees, and after his birthmark is removed, his newfound confidence allows him to pursue a relationship with aspiring model Tia (Clémence Poésy) and grow a bond with Belle (Nikita Mistry), a little girl seemingly bound to Papa B whom Jamie looks at as a daughter figure. But Jamie also has to reconcile his newfound happiness with the horrible acts of violence demanded by Papa B, as Jamie realizes the tenuous nature of his happiness and the steep cost it has to those around him.
As always, please consider this your blanket spoiler warning, as we’ll be discussing major plot points in the film. But first, Bede, not only had I not seen Heartless, I actually hadn’t heard about it until you recommended it, which is odd because it’s got a fairly well-known cast and was well-reviewed. In looking at its background, I saw that it was one of the first British films to be simultaneously released in theaters and on VOD. Do you think maybe it was lost in this new format release?
Personally, I think it did, to be honest. Given how simultaneous theater/VOD releases have done pretty well for a lot of films over the past few years, especially during the pandemic, I think if Heartless came out today in that format, a lot more people would be aware of it, for sure. However, since it was one of the earliest films to experiment that approach way back in 2010 (along with having its DVD and Blu-ray released a few days afterwards as well), it definitely helped the film fall into the cracks and made it an obscure film. It probably seemed like a new and revolutionary way to release a film at the time, but from the sounds of it, it didn’t work for it in the end. Plus, I wouldn’t be surprised if promotion/marketing of both the film and the format didn’t catch on with audiences, either. Although I suppose since it's one of the first British films to do that format, it definitely has its own “ahead of its time” legacy to it at least.
What inspired you to nominate Heartless for this installment? Do you remember the first time you watched it?
When I think of horror films that nobody has seen, Heartless is definitely one of the first ones that comes to my mind. Usually, a lot of lesser-known horror films always have some kind of discussion or fanbase around it, but I never have heard anyone else ever talk about this film in horror circles. I first became aware of the film when I was scrolling through the new release aisles of my local video shop one day. I spotted the DVD of it and the cover immediately caught my interest. I took it home and sat down to watch it. I must admit, I was expecting it to be like a Death Wish-style action/horror film with demons based on its synopsis, but as it went on and it went into a different direction with its story, I became even more enthralled by it. I’ve recommended this film to quite a few friends over the years and every time they get back to me about it, they always say that they either enjoyed or loved it. Even then, it’s still a film that isn’t talked about at all, which I think is a shame.
I’m a huge fan of Ridley’s previous film, the supremely weird The Passion of Darkly Noon. Have you seen this one either before or since seeing Heartless? If so, how do you think they compare?
Actually, I haven’t seen The Passion of Darkly Noon yet, but it has been on my radar ever since I saw Heartless. I know it wasn’t readily available for quite a number of years until Arrow Video released it on Blu-ray a few years back. I’ll definitely have to pick it up at some point soon. Especially since it has Brendan Fraser, Ashley Judd, and Viggo Mortensen in it. The only thing I can compare Heartless to with another film in director Philip Ridley’s output is his first film, The Reflecting Skin, which is also another underrated gem. The filmmaking approach that Ridley brings to both films is very different (The Reflecting Skin is very much a surreal coming-of-age vampire film, while Heartless is a much more accessible but gritty psychological horror/thriller with a dose of social commentary in it), but that being said, they both have similar thematic elements with each other.
Heartless is much more accessible than the utterly bizarre The Passion of Darkly Noon, but they also feel similar in that they have a surreal, dark fairy tale feel to them. Is that an element of The Reflecting Skin as well?
Oh, for sure! Even though I haven’t seen The Passion of Darkly Noon, I would imagine The Reflecting Skin would be more in line with that film than it would be with Heartless. It’s definitely not a mainstream and accessible film at all. As I stated before, even though they are both different films, The Reflecting Skin does share that same dark fairy tale quality as well—probably even more so since it’s a period piece that is set in an American prairie community in the 1950s and told from the point of view of a young boy. Plus, like all fairy tales, it tackles a lot of dark themes within its story.
Adding to the dark, immersive experience for Heartless is the music, as several songs were written by Ridley, composed by his frequent collaborator Nick Bicât, and in some cases even sung by lead actor Sturgess. How do you think the music impacted your experience?
I think that they were used quite well. The songs themselves are really well-written lyrically, and having Sturgess himself sing most of them was a really good idea. Whenever they are used in a scene, the songs get into the mindset of what Jamie is feeling in that moment. Sometimes the lyrics can be a little too on the nose, at times mirroring what is going on in a scene. I can see some people being put off by that, I still found them rather effective nonetheless. Also, I want to mention that the score by David Julyan (who did the scores for Memento, The Descent, The Prestige, and The Cabin in The Woods) is quite exceptional as well. For me, it’s a truly underrated score that perfectly captures both the dark mood and emotion of the story.
At its core, Heartless is a very Faustian story, as Jamie makes this deal with the demonic Papa B. This can be a risky premise, as you risk painting the protagonist in a bad light. But I think for all the horrible things that Jamie does, including murder and ritual mutilation, there’s always an element of sympathy for him. Do you agree, and if so, how do you think they pull that off?
Yeah, Jamie as a character could have easily been rather unsympathetic given some of the actions that he does in the film. Luckily, both Philip Ridley and star Jim Sturgess did a great job of making us really empathize with him from the beginning by showing us difficulties that he has been facing in his life, whether it be his crippling shyness, his interactions with different members of his family, the loss of his father and, most importantly, the struggles that he faces every day due to the large birthmarks that cover his body, especially the heart-shaped one on the left side of his face. Once we see Jamie do the horrible actions that he has been ordered to do by Papa B as part of their deal, we see that he doesn’t want to do it, and it tears him up inside in the aftermath. Through his powerful performance, Sturgess conveys that brilliantly.
The young girl Belle makes for a very interesting character, as on one hand she seems to be the only ray of light among these dark characters, but at the same time she’s the one best able to convince Jamie to commit these horrible acts. Did you see her simply as part of the grander demonic conspiracy or as someone trying to navigate this horrible situation just like Jamie?
I think that’s one of the interesting things about the character of Belle. Ridley leaves it ambiguous whether she does genuinely care for Jamie and only tries to get him to do these horrible things just so he doesn’t face the consequences of what would happen if he doesn’t. Or she is indeed in fact a malevolent being who pretends to show him love and acts like a “daughter” to him, so it’s easier to manipulate him for Papa B. Personally, I like to think it’s more of the former, but due to how the character is written in the film, I’m never really 100% sure.
The obvious follow-up question is whether or not Belle is even real, as it’s heavily hinted that Jamie may have hallucinated some or all elements of his demonic dealings. Where do you land in terms of what was real and what was Jamie’s imagination?
Even though I haven’t heard it yet myself, I have heard that Philip Ridley does give us a definitive answer to whether everything with Papa B, Belle, and the demons was all in Jamie’s head or not, which is kind of surprising since most filmmakers would leave something like that ambiguous and leave it up to the audience to decide for themselves. Personally, I would rather not know the answer to the film’s main question. I feel like the film is far more interesting if it leaves the viewer to decide what they think the answer is based on their interpretation of it. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely have a theory on what I think the answer is, but it’s better and more fun without 100% certainty, especially if the filmmaker knows it himself and has expressed it openly. That’s just my opinion, though.
Whether or not the supernatural events are real or part of Jamie’s imagination, his story ends in tragedy, as he’s killed by local gang members. Do you think there is anything bittersweet to take away from his picturing being reunited with his father, or do you see the ending as more nihilistic?
Honestly, I never really considered the ending to be nihilistic myself. I definitely see it as more bittersweet than anything. After everything Jamie has gone through during the events of the film, along with the hardships that he faced prior to the story, he accepted his fate and was at peace with himself. Regardless of whether what he saw as he was dying was a dream or going into the afterlife, having his beloved father (played beautifully by Timothy Spall in his small role) waiting there for him and providing Jamie comfort was very moving to me. His dad’s “you need real dark to see stars” speech is such a beautiful and heartfelt way to show his love to Jamie. I always get misty-eyed when I think of that scene because in some certain ways I related to Jamie as a character. That’s why I feel that it’s definitely a bittersweet one for sure.
With Jamie’s demise, Ridley pretty much closes the door on a sequel, at least one with the same characters. But is this a story that you’d want to see revisited in any way, be it as a continuation with new characters or as a remake, reimagining, etc.? If so, would you want to see Ridley return, or do you have any other filmmakers you’d like to see take a crack at it?
I have to admit, a part of me really doesn’t want to see a remake or follow-up to Heartless. I think the story works very much as a standalone. However, that being said, another part of me would be curious to see how someone would reimagine it. There would definitely be potential there to go further with the story. As much as I do love the film, it does have some flaws in it that could be ironed out if given another redo. I would imagine that Philip Ridley wouldn’t be interested in doing this story again or a continuation. But seeing the film from a different filmmaker’s POV would be intriguing. Plus, they would also have to find someone who would give such a committed performance as Jim Sturgess did here. He was the heart and soul of the film.