Eye For Film >> Movies >> The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things (2004) Film Review
Adaptations are never straightforward: just think of the Jane Austen society in the US going into righteous indignation overload at the sugary ending of the recent Pride And Prejudice. Turning fiction into film can be a hazardous business and doubly so when the book you're dealing with is an underground cult hit with untold personal resonances for untold numbers of people.
Asia Argento should be well placed to make J T LeRoy's twisted, beautiful stories translate into screen gems. Interesting cinematic pedigree - check. Flawless hipster credentials - check. Famous friends for cameos (Winona Ryder, Michael Pitt, Rancid's Tim Armstrong) - check. Fan and Close Personal Buddy of the iconoclastic and secretive author - check. And yet this film fails to live up to the promise of the original story, turning LeRoy's deeply disturbing, yet somehow uplifting, poetic journey into a fairly accomplished, utterly relentless and at the end of the day fairly standard tale of abuse and trauma.
Seven-year-old Jeremiah is wrenched from the arms of his loving foster parents by his delinquent, drug-addled mama Sarah (Argento), who manages to convince social services to return him to her. Thence follows a catalogue of ills. She feeds him drugs and tells him torturous tall tales of how his fosters hate him and the police will crucify him - literally - if he runs away. He sees her whoring herself around a truck stop, then is beaten black and blue by one of her lovers after he wets himself. A series of boyfriends follow, the last of whom rapes the abandoned Jeremiah after Sarah runs out on him in Atlantic City.
Consigned to hospital and forced to deal with the world's most ineffectual child psychiatrist (Ryder), Jeremiah is soon "rescued" by his grandmother and taken to the family home in Virginia, run with an iron fist by his fiercely religious granddaddy (Peter Fonda). We then flash forward three years - Sarah's junior party animal has been turned into a side-of-the-road preacher. She turns up to claim him again and they hit the road, engaging with yet another set of deadbeat men. Jeremiah takes to dressing as his mother, causing untold chaos when he seduces one of her lovers by pretending to be her and ruins her favourite baby doll nightie.
The pair fetches up in the home of basement chemist Chester (Jeremy Sisto, a love way from Clueless), but a combination of scary drugs and disaster pushes Sarah over the edge, and they go on the run again. Will Jeremiah ever find stability? Will he ever have a normal life? Er, no. Clearly not.
There is a redemptive quality to LeRoy's writing that is sorely lacking here. While his books may be upsetting, they are also quirky, whimsical, couched in such a way that the abuse and degradation are manageable, part of the character's journey rather than its only defining feature. This film, on the other hand, is a chronicle of one boy's fucked up life. The unhealthy love between mother and son is touched upon, as is the joy of life on the road, but the majority of the viewer's time is spent flinching from some pretty disturbing material. It's never pleasant to watch images of child abuse and, artistic pretensions aside, that is what this film is built on. Brief moments of humour light up the screen, but Jeremiah's inner journey is barely engaged with.
This is Argento's first shot at directing in English and it's clear that she has an accomplished eye and a fine visual sense. Washed-out colours, creative camera use, interesting plays with music and angles all impress, but are not enough.
There will always be conflict when a director casts themselves as their lead and accusations of "vanity project" can hardly be avoided here. Sarah is a dream role, an actress' career-making turn as sexy, funny, tragic, disturbed, insane, evil - think Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted or Beatrice Dalle in Betty Blue. I don't suggest for a second that Argento doesn't pull it off, but the camera seems almost too besotted with her, too attached to her when Jeremiah should be the real heart of the film. The boys who play the lead - Jimmy Bennett and then Cole and Dylan Sprouse - do a remarkable job, which can be quite unsettling to watch (call me old-fashioned, I shudder when kids that young play anal rape scenes), but one can't shake the feeling that the film is really about Sarah.
For what it is - a sickening, utterly relentless, extremely brave portrait of abuse and mental illness - this film performs quite admirably. But for what it could have been, well, it's something of a disappointment.Reviewed on: 28 Jan 2006