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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things (review)

The Horror, the Horror

You know who JT Leroy is, yes? Literary hoaxer extraordinaire, a teenaged young man who wrote books about a seriously fucked-up childhood that were allegedly novels but were really based on his own true-life story… but were really a complete load of invented codswallop from a 40-year-old woman, Laura Albert?

The game was up just before The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, based upon “Leroy”’s work, was released, and that’s a good thing, for here is a tale so piled on with outrageous abuse and misery that to accept it as true is almost impossible. Not that outrageous abuse and misery don’t exist in the real world, but here it has a gloss of grim fantasy that is much more like a horror film’s than a true-life drama’s.
As a horror film, though, Heart has a sucker-punch power more potent that what most movies specifically designed as “horror” can muster. Look at this as drama, and the overgrown monstrosity of it is cartoonish; look at it as horror, though, and its hyperbolic cartoonishness is terrifying in way that most horror films cannot approach, for it isn’t about blood and gore but about the inhuman things that people do to one another, which is way scarier than slippery entrails any day.

Perhaps that’s not surprising, since Heart comes from the twisted mind of actor/filmmaker Asia Argento, daughter of horrormeister Dario and something of a protégé of his. Argento — who adapted the Leroy fiction with Alessandro Magania — has taken Leroy’s so-ridiculous-it-must-be-invented tale of childhood sexual and psychological abuse and physical neglect and turned it into a nightmarish fun-house ride through the darkest, sickest side of American culture. And casts herself as the Devil.

Her Sarah is, not to put too fine a point on it, one twisted bitch, a woman who highjacks her young son, Jeremiah (Jimmy Bennett [The Amityville Horror, Hostage] as a seven-year-old; twins Dylan and Cole Sprouse [The Master of Disguise] as the eleven-year-old version), out of a very happy and loving foster home because she can, as the boy’s biological mother. A bit of a sociopath, she piles scorn and contempt upon this most impressionable little boy — oh, and she introduces this gradeschooler to all manner of intoxicants, too — and it’s debatable whether this is better or worse than her abandonment of him as soon as she’s bored with the novelty of having regular emotional punching bag. Sarah is a caricature, but then, so are Freddy and Jason — and Argento (George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead, XXX) revels in her evilness, seduces you and manipulates you like Sarah does her son: you hate her, but like a child with nowhere else to go, you cling to her, because not to do so is to put yourself into even more intolerable situations.

Which is what happens to Jeremiah, of course: the horrendous people into whose “care” he ends up as Sarah pops into and out of his life are arguably even worse than Sarah herself. Jeremiah’s grandfather, for instance (Peter Fonda: Ocean’s Twelve), Sarah’s father, is another monster — a sadistic religious fundamentalist — who would be a cartoon in a drama but as a horror-movie villain is perfectly perfect, in an outlandish way.

This isn’t one of those horror movies, though, that can make you laugh as easily as it can make you flinch — there’s nothing funny here, and plenty folks will find the unrelenting depiction of the abuse of a child unwatchable. (Argento’s offscreen assurances aside, it’s also hard to imagine how the children portraying Jeremiah escaped a kind of abuse on the set.) If you can stomach it, though, if you’re up for a real horror movie, you’ll find here one of the most horrifying movies you’re ever likely to see.


MPAA: rated R for intense depiction of child abuse/neglect, strong sex and drug content, pervasive language and some violence

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb
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