Fairy tales are not all that different from horror stories, when you think about it. Both use extreme imagery (a wolf eats a woman and wears her skin to devour her granddaughter) and both serve to explain something about the world by proxy (werewolves aren't werewolves; they’re our fear of our primal impulses and our increasing distance from nature). There are tonal differences to be sure, and it is perfectly okay to read our children fairy tales as a way to usher them into sleep, but just try doing that with The Cask of Amontillado or The Rats in the Walls and see where it gets you. Both are about the intersection of the natural and supernatural, waking reality and nightmare, the rational and the irrational.
Heartless is definitely more of a dark fable or fairy tale than it is a horror film, and that’s mostly to its benefit.
Jamie is a young man with a knack for photography and a good eye for the world around him. He works with his brother and his nephew running the photography studio started by their late father - generations doing the work of capturing the world around them. It’s a noble occupation. He has a keen eye for beauty, made even sharper by the extensive port-wine birthmark that covers the left side of his face and crawls and spills down his shoulder and back. People stare, some even flinch. He hides it with a hoodie, turns his face away from the light. It’s only when he’s looking through a viewfinder that he faces the world head-on.
Jamie’s walking home from the studio one night, stopping by the local shops to get some food and other stuff for his mom, where he still lives. Dad’s been gone a few years now, and he doesn't want his mom to be lonely, but let’s be honest, it’s a hard, scary world out there for someone who gets called “freak” on a regular basis. Probably safer to stay at home, to not risk anything by striking out on his own. Especially given how crazy things are getting in their little part of East London. Crime is on the rise, gangs of marauding youths in hoodies, vandalism, assault.
One night, Jamie catches some of these young thugs in the act of burning something up, shrieking and howling in bestial celebration. One turns in the light of the fire, and Jamie sees a face beneath the hood that is not at all human. Too-wide mouth, full of needle teeth, reptilian. The next day, the news reports that it was a man, burned alive.
So, this world established, Jamie’s family and friends are put at risk with a shocking immediacy, and he finds himself having to make a series of choices that, although well-intentioned, lead him down a very dark and winding path. The rest of the film deals with Jamie’s descent and redemption in the face of what he feels he should do, what he wants to do, and the price he pays for all of it. London is falling apart for a reason, as he discovers. There’s a juxtaposition of the otherworldly and the everyday at play here, with Jamie walking between one and the other without quite realizing what he’s doing until it’s too late.
To that end, this movie is beautifully shot - London is composed of pools of light and shadow, drawn in all kinds of colors and textures made up of everyday stone, wood, brick, dirt, marble, glass, and metal, all sketched over with looping whorls of graffiti and rust, that suggests both the presence of magic and the encroaching agents of chaos without being really obvious about it or completely displacing it from a mundane context. It’s wonderfully evocative and keeps the film right on that line between urban grittiness and otherworldliness - Jamie finds himself in dark territory before he even realizes it partially because it can be so hard in this world to tell the difference. There are monsters, but there’s more than monsters too, and less than monsters, and it’s all happening at once, and even though Heartless sustains a sort of dark fairytale vibe, it’s not afraid to show you terrible things in sudden stabs of violence. It’s all well and good to make deals with things that feel a little mythical until a polite, quiet man shows up at your door and tells you what you have to do to keep up your end of the bargain. It strikes the same balance between the unreal and real and mystic and horrific that Neil Gaiman pulls off in some of his best work.
On the other hand, it does feel a little too on-the-nose sometimes in communicating the idea that what we see isn't what really is, and the whole “this city is going to shit” thing is a little too spot-on and handled through dialogue instead of letting the visuals do more of the heavy lifting, but for the most part the film makes good, non-obvious choices and makes a lot of little details count in ways you wouldn't expect. It feels less like this world only exists as far as the writer needs for it to and more like there is vast machinery in motion behind the face of the world, bringing Jamie and those around him to this place at this time, and the natural and supernatural converge throughout in unexpected ways.
In the end, it doesn't quite stick the landing - a lot gets thrown at us in the last 10 or 15 minutes that is probably supposed to function as some sort of big reveal, but really end up muddling what came before in terms of what was real and what was imagination. It's difficult to tell during this big reveal how much of what we're seeing is literal and how much is metaphorical, and we’re never really given a clear visual or symbolic language that allows us to figure it out for ourselves. More practically, it also employs some really dodgy effects work that robs the end of some dramatic power, but it despite fumbling in the home stretch, it still manages to bring Jamie’s story to an appropriate close, and even does so on a surprisingly tender note. Bad things happen in the world, and we can't always control or prevent them, and sometimes the price we pay for happiness is too high. At some point, you have to learn how to accept things, see how they truly are, and let go.
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