Color, 2009, 114m.
Directed by Philip Ridley
Starring Jim Sturgess, Clémence Poésy, Noel Clarke, Luke Treadway, Joseph Mawle, Ruth Sheen, Timothy Spall
Lionsgate (Blu-Ray & DVD) (UK RB/R2 HD/PAL) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9) / DD5.1

Continuing his streak as the least productive torchbearer of art-horror films, director and author Philip Ridley (The Reflecting Skin, The Passion of Darkly Noon) has an average of turning out one film for each decade of his career. His third remarkable feature, Heartless, manages to adapt his concerns and visual style to the post-9/11 era and results in his most accessible and well-rounded narrative yet while losing none of his idiosyncratic appeal.

In East London, a young photographer named Jamie (Sturgess) feels disconnected from the world due to the heart-shaped birthmark on his face. One night he observes and follows a hooded gang member who appears to be wearing a demon mask, though much to his horror, Jamie discovers that the thug and his cohorts aren't really wearing masks at all. A former ruffian named A.J. (Doctor Who's Clarke) moves in next door to Jamie and his family, which also includes his mother, brother, and nephew. Tragedy strikes when Jamie's mother is attacked and killed by the marauding demon gang, but then events become even stranger when Jamie is approached by a sinister agent of chaos named Papa B (Mawle) and his young Indian companion, Belle, who offer him a Faustian bargain: the removal of his birthmark and a sweet new girlfriend (In Bruges' Poésy) in exchange for some random acts of anarchy. Jamie accepts and gets burned alive, only to emerge from his charred skin with an immaculate face. Unfortunately he soon learns that the deal actually calls for him to brutally murder a stranger and leave their sliced-out heart on the steps of a church by midnight, a demand Jamie doesn't think he can fulfill...

Though it seems to revolve around a twist ending most viewers can spot about ten minutes into the film, Heartless is actually far more than it appears. Ridley uses color symbolism, striking cityscapes, and fairy tale logic to craft a truly unique tale that never quite goes where you think it will, particularly the stunning, emotionally powerful finale in which Timothy Spall (glimpsed throughout in photographs) finally appears to close the film out on a brilliant, melancholy note. An excellent actor who's carried some deeply flawed projects like Across the Universe and 21, Sturgess is terrific here as his wounded character transforms from pitiable to terrifying to romantic and then back again without missing a beat. He's also a perfect fit with Ridley's past protagonists, confused young men unable to fully process the often terrifying superstitions and random cruelties which seem to be governing the universe. Extra props as well for the evocative music score by David Julyan and, for once, a well-chosen smattering of songs that actually suit the action onscreen.

For some reason Lionsgate has only seen fit to release this film in the UK, though given Ridley's unfortunate track record on home video, it'll probably pop up at some point down the road buried as an After Dark Film Fest title in America. The Blu-Ray and DVD feature the same extras and are Region B and Region 2 coded respectively; the transfer is immaculate as one would expect from a 2009 film, though one can only imagine how impressive some scenes must have looked on the big screen. The 5.1 soundtrack (lossless on the BD) is also highly active and immersive during the horror sequences; optional English subtitles are provided which can be quite handy given the sometimes thick, mumbly accents. The biggest extra here is a terrific audio commentary track by Ridley in which he manages to leave enough room open for interpretation but thoroughly breaks down each visual and story element of the film, pointing out numerous little touches that would likely escape casual viewers. He also talks about the careful choices of locations (including East London areas he'd been photographing for six years), recruiting the cast, and the careful color schematics of red and green which underscore the storyline. Other extras include two live performances of songs from the film, the theatrical trailer, and three galleries of the photographs seen throughout the film.

Mondo Digital Reviews Mondo Digital Links Frequently Asked Questions