If Asia Argento’s directing bow “Scarlet Diva” was a vanity exercise, in her second feature, “The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things,” the Italian glamour Goth constructs a self-worshipping shrine. Madly self-indulgent, undisciplined retelling of literary enfant terrible J.T. Leroy’s autobiographical tome careens recklessly from one hellish scenario to the next in its account of the author’s nightmare childhood with his speed-freak mother. Though it’s decidedly for perverse palates, some kind of cult audience seems assured for this one-note onslaught, which exercises a bizarre fascination despite its excesses.
In many ways an extension of “Scarlet Diva,” the drama again chronicles a dizzying vortex of mind-bending drug use and bruising sex with all the subtlety and modulation of a jackhammer, though this time from the point of view of a child. The unfortunate tyke is stuck with the Olympic champion of unfit mothers, who makes Norman Bates, Christina Crawford and Sybil seem pampered. But Argento’s film — co-written with Alessandro Magania — may be the most cavalier depiction of child abuse ever put on screen. Its refusal to demonize eliminates even a hint of any moral point of view, making it ultimately play like facile provocation.
Story opens as 7-year-old Jeremiah (Jimmy Bennett) is returned to his white-trash mother Sarah (Argento) after being wrenched away from the foster parents he loves. The traumatized kid tries to run away, but his mother terrifies him with wrathful threats of death and crucifixion. Sharing her amphetamines with him, Sarah drags Jeremiah along on her barroom-bedroom excursions, encouraging one redneck conquest (Kip Pardue) to whip her son with his belt for wetting the bed. The boy soon develops a taste for such punishment.
Sarah remarries but vanishes during the honeymoon, leaving her abandoned husband (Jeremy Renner) to seek comfort by sodomizing Jeremiah before dumping him. After some misguided care from an imbecilic child shrink (Winona Rider, unbilled for good reason), Jeremiah is claimed by his Bible-thumping grandparents (Peter Fonda, Ornella Muti). Three years in their fundamentalist house of disciplinary horrors has him preaching salvation on a street corner when Sarah resurfaces with her latest trucker daddy (Matt Schulze) to reclaim the boy.
Sarah finances her drug habit by working as a truck stop hooker and a pole-dancing stripper. She sometimes passes off androgynous-looking Jeremiah (played at age 11 by twins Cole and Dylan Sprouse) as a girl, at one point putting him in makeup and a lacy outfit. When Jeremiah’s latest surrogate pa (Marilyn Manson) responds sexually to the boy’s cross-dressing act, Sarah ends another relationship, though more because of damage to her baby doll negligee than to her son. Her final hookup before mother and son are hospitalized is with a biker (Jeremy Sisto) who makes crystal meth in the cellar.
Press notes indicate author Leroy’s admiration for the film, which sticks very closely to his book and maybe functions better as therapy than as drama. But while Argento clearly has thrown herself full-throttle into this project, she’s far too narcissistic a director to be entirely in the service of anyone else’s story and seems more concerned with feeding her own dark screen persona. Taking a valiant but inconsistent stab at a Southern accent, she channels Courtney Love in a performance that’s all heroin-chic skankiness and punky attitude.
As an actress, Argento has a certain undeniable train-wreck magnetism. But the director-star never taps into the pathos of the lost, increasingly delusional woman or shows even a glimmer of tenderness or maternal feeling to indicate why 23-year-old Sarah would fight hard to regain custody of the child removed years earlier by social services, whom she regards as an imposition most of the time. Nor is there any real sense of Jeremiah’s struggle to grow.
The emotionless, overwrought movie’s lack of psychological depth or dramatic verisimilitude makes the boy’s grim odyssey a curiously remote and unshocking horror show, though the three actors playing Jeremiah have a trance-like detachment and angelic quality that work well to show kids’ innate survival mechanisms. And Bennett has a priceless moment singing the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the U.K.” at his grandparents’ house after being asked what psalms he knows.
Exactly what role was filled by 27 credited producers on such an artlessly made feature is a mystery. Starting at hysteria pitch and staying there, the haphazardly shot film wears its rawness and visceral energy like a proud battle uniform. Liberally borrowing stylistic devices — notably from Gus Van Sant in “My Own Private Idaho” — the film tosses in every visual cliche imaginable, from kid’s-eye-view camerawork to sinister low angles to distorted fish-eye-lensed drug binge montages, backed by aural-assault bursts of thrashing music.
Pic is dedicated to French d.p. Jean-Yves Escoffier, who died last year.