The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things (2004)

Review first published by Movie Gazette

A young actress who is the daughter of a famous European director moves to Hollywood, where she gets caught in a downward spiral of failed romances and drug abuse. As the directorial debut of actress Asia Argento, herself a resident of LA and the daughter of Italy’s giallo auteur Dario Argento, Scarlet Diva (2000) was clearly a very personal calling-card – and her presence in the lead rôle only added to the impression of autobiography. For her second feature she has stuck with autobiography (of sorts), although this time not her own. The title may come from Jeremiah 17:9, but The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things is adapted from an altogether different book of Jeremiah – the (supposedly) autobiographical novel by J. (Jeremiah) T. Leroy. While Argento has once again taken her film’s principal part for herself, this time critics are unlikely to accuse her, as some did with Scarlet Diva, of self-indulgent narcissism, for it would be difficult to imagine a rôle more unflattering and repellent than that of Sarah.

“You’re all I’ve got – you better not leave me”, says Sarah to her young son Jeremiah. “I’m yours”, he replies. This is after Sarah had taken him against his will from his foster parents when he was eight, kept him fed on garbage scraps, doped him up on alcohol and drugs, left him to sleep in a bathtub, allowed him to be viciously whipped by her new boyfriend (“I didn’t know you had it in you to be so fatherly”, she tells the belt-wielding beau), and finally abandoned him while she went on a two-day honeymoon that turned into an absence of three years. Now back on the road with Sarah (“remember how much fun we had together?”, she says) after a long stay with his Christian Fundamentalist grandparents (Peter Fonda and Ornella Muti), 11-year old Jeremiah experiences at first hand his mother’s truckstop prostitution, her string of low-life boyfriends, and her surrender to crystal meth-induced psychosis.

Those who like their cinema fun-loving, or at least uplifting, are unlikely to enjoy The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things – but anyone who is in touch with their inner miserabilist will find plenty to savour in this uncompromising and relentlessly downbeat examination of a bond between mother and son that no amount of neglect, abuse or madness can erase. Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Jeremiah takes a strange, psychedelic journey through the looking glass of America’s impoverished southern backwaters, and to match the perspective of this confused and sometimes intoxicated little boy, Argento offers a disorienting but undeniably beautiful array of skewed camera angles and hallucinatory images (including a claymation bird of prey and a small piece of coal that weeps blood).

Jimmy Bennett, who plays Jeremiah aged eight, and the twins Dylan and Cole Spouse, who play him aged eleven, all capture perfectly the young boy’s wayward innocence in what must have been a very difficult shoot. Argento manages the near impossible balancing act of portraying Sarah in all her cruelty and selfishness, while still suggesting that she is a child as lost and needy as her own son. In this provocatively perverse retelling of the Christian passion and pieta, both mother and child may be travelling down “the way of the wicked”, as Sarah’s bible- (and child-) thumping father puts it, towards eternal damnation – but the legacy of abuse and misery snakes all the way back to his own “house of the Lord”.

Summary: In this beautifully nightmarish vision of America’s apocalypse, a mother-son bond must survive itself above all things.

Anton Bitel