After a 15-year sabbatical from feature filmmaking, Brit helmer Philip Ridley (“The Reflecting Skin”) returns with “Heartless,” a stylish low-key scarer about a facially deformed young Londoner’s fateful interaction with supernatural beings in his East End neighborhood. There’s more mood than matter here, but suspenseful atmospherics effectively distract from minor plot holes. Backed by a strong ensemble of first-rate supporting players — including some Mike Leigh vets — top-billed Jim Sturgess adroitly maintains aud sympathy even when he’s driven to murderous extremes, which could help the pic attract homevid viewers. Limited U.S. theatrical rollout begins Nov. 19.
Sturgess plays Jamie, a moodily introverted photographer who endures the stares of strangers who gawk at the huge heart-shaped birthmark on his face.
While wandering through the mean streets of the East End by night, Jamie makes a shocking discovery: Violent young thugs who have been terrorizing the area aren’t merely gang members wearing demon masks, they really are demons. But before he can muster up the nerve to report what he’s seen, Jamie is attacked — and his mother (Ruth Sheen) is killed — by the hooded predators.
Opening scenes suggest a set-up for a vigilante drama, with Jamie obtaining a pistol from a local gun-runner, and preparing to clean up his neighborhood like a younger, angrier version of Michael Caine’s recent “Harry Brown.” But the pic takes a detour into Faustian territory when Jamie meets Papa B (Joseph Mawle), a seductively sinister character who bills himself as “the patron saint of random violence,” and offers to magically remove Jamie’s disfigurement if the troubled young man agrees to do some very bad things.
Unfortunately, Jamie doesn’t realize just how bad those things might be until he signs on for the makeover.
One of the pic’s high points is a potently intense sequence in which an anguished Jamie — inspired by Belle (Nikita Mistry), a child-like sprite in Papa B’s employ — reluctantly carries out a command to perform a human sacrifice.
Another standout scene serves as a darkly comical showcase for Eddie Marsan (“Happy Go Lucky”), who takes unabashed delight in his scene-stealing riff as a fast-talking Papa B functionary aptly identified as Weapons Man.
Other notables in the supporting cast include Clemence Poesy as a part-time model who falls for the facially reconfigured Jamie, Noel Clarke as a neighbor who comes to regret his own deal with Papa B, and Timothy Spall as Jamie’s long-deceased father, who appears sporadically in flashbacks, and shares with Sturgess a surprisingly poignant final scene.
Special effects are used sparingly but persuasively, and tech values overall are impressive.