'The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things' has its U.S. premiere

Children have a remarkable ability to adapt to almost any situation, no matter how horrific. Their resilience never ceases to amaze, and Asia Argento's aptly named "The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things" is one of the most pronounced examples of just how strong they can be. A harrowing slice of Southern gothic, Ms. Argento's latest effort is the stuff nightmares and lifetimes of therapy are made of - a terrifying trip through the complete destruction of innocence, seen firsthand through the eyes of its young victim. Based on a collection of autobiographical short stories by J.T. LeRoy, the film finds its own heart in the unthinkable - a testament to the indefatigable nature of the human spirit in the face of virtually every form of child abuse imaginable.       

Sarah (Asia Argento) tells Jeremiah (Jimmy Bennett) about his foster parents and crucifixion

Ripped from a safe and idyllic life with his foster parents, seven-year-old Jeremiah (Jimmy Bennett) is returned to his real mother Sarah (Argento), a slum-dwelling speed freak who abandoned him at birth. Having already destroyed her own life by the young age of 23, Sarah isn't a repentant mother looking to make a better life for herself and her child - she's a recalcitrant drug addict who hops from man to man in search of the love and attention she didn't get as a child. Miserable and fearful of living in his mother's dingy hellhole of an apartment, Jeremiah escapes to a nearby police station. Assured that his parents are on the way, Jeremiah's hopes are shattered when Sarah flounces into the station in all her trashy glory.

Safely speeding away, Sarah silences Jeremiah's protests by telling him that his foster parents let her have him because they hated him, and if he ever goes back, they'll crucify him. Terrified, his hopes destroyed, Jeremiah finally succumbs, wrapping his arms around his mother in surrender as they leave the slums behind.

A strung out Sarah (Argento) with Jeremiah (Cole and Dylan Sprouse) in tow

After suffering through a myriad of abuse at the hands of his strung out mother and her endless parade of men, Jeremiah finds himself abandoned in a children's shelter, ultimately claimed by his maternal grandparents and swept up into a new cycle of torment, this time in the guise of religious zealotry. As before, Jeremiah adapts to his latest prison, only to be picked up out of blue when his mother re-emerges. Now 11, Jeremiah (Dylan and Cole Sprouse) takes to the road for a whole new cycle of exploitation, abuse and gender confusion - one that can only end when his Sarah's self-destruction is complete. 

Little more than an object used to fill an emotional void in his mother's life, to provide some sense of the love and purpose that she so sorely lacks, Jeremiah is both scapegoat and pet. Yet despite the bullying and abuse she subjects him to on a daily basis, he continues to forgive her and follow her with the kind of unconditional love and devotion that only a child is capable of giving. All three of the young actors charged with this role are outstanding, their expressive eyes conveying hurt, confusion and the desire to merely be loved. The looks in their faces as Sarah constantly tosses them aside or pushes them away are heartbreaking, and the scrappy will that they bring to the character gives us hope for Jeremiah's future. The boys' performances are a testament to their talent, as well as Ms. Argento's greatest success in directing the film.

Doing triple duty as writer, director and star, Ms. Argento seems to have inherited some of her father's sense of visual style, but still has a long way to go as a filmmaker. Using saturated colors, she gives the film a surreal look amid the dinginess, and at her best, creates moods somewhere between dream and nightmare - a child's view of a cruel and exciting world that he cannot fully comprehend, complemented by Billy Corgan and Marco Castoldi's alternately ethereal and jarring score. But these moments are too fleeting, and the film often devolves into a gratuitous parade of abuse and humiliation. After so much horror, we start to become numb to the nightmare unfolding before us, forgetting that the trauma we're witnessing was all too real to its author.

Further warping Jeremiah's (Sprouse) young mind

The string of men in Sarah's life is largely filled out with cameos by Kip Pardue, Marilyn Manson, Peter Fonda, Michael Pitt and Jeremy Sisto. Each actor turns in a solid performance - Pardue and Manson (sans makeup and rocker image) are exceptionally disturbing - but their faces and characters get lost in the shuffle. The concept works in the theory, but the sheer number of characters gets confusing on screen and detracts from the drama unfolding. 

Despite her skill with the younger actors and the cameos, Ms. Argento's own performance is a bit uneven. Playing Sarah as rebel in search of a cause, constantly on the verge of a sneer, Ms. Argento's performance is a caricature of a strung out Courtney Love. Her portrayal of Sarah's anger and neediness is dead on, but her inherent vulnerability is nowhere to be found - there's no sign of the heart that led her character astray in the first place.

Our hearts are continually deceiving us. They convince us to behave in irrational and sometimes dangerous ways. We often eschew our better judgment because of the innate desire to be loved, allowing it to become the very thing that destroys us. But if "The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things" offers any hope, it's that this destruction is not complete. No matter how far our lives have spiraled out of control, things can always get worse, but they can also improve. And though the heart may be deceitful and flawed, ultimately, it's what makes us human.

If you would like to find out more about "The Heart is Deceitful Above Alll Things" you can visit the official website at: www.heartisdeceitfulmovie.com

 

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