Only a month after acclaimed author J.T. LeRoy was exposed by The New York Times as a fictional persona concocted by writer Laura Albert – a revelation that all but demolished the credibility of the scribe’s supposedly semi-autobiographical books – cultish actress/diva-turned-director Asia Argento arrives with her adaptation of LeRoy’s The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, the tumultuous road-tripping saga of young Jeremiah and the psycho birth mother who introduces him to a world of whoring, pill-popping and delusional paranoia. Having proven herself more than slightly familiar with society’s seedy underbelly with 2000’s skuzzy Scarlet Diva, Argento attacks LeRoy’s (untrue, but still affecting) tale of corrosively corrupted childhood with nasty relish, employing severe close-ups, nightmarishly surreal stop-motion animation, curdled primary colors and a dissonant Billy Corgan score for this descent into degenerate nomad hell. Yet despite such avant-garde showmanship, Argento’s second effort behind the camera is significantly more polished than her debut, lacking the truly gonzo verve that might have overcome her film’s more pressing, primary failure to capture the boy’s-eye-view of LeRoy’s tome. Closed off from her protagonist’s internal turmoil, Argento’s Heart is Deceitful gets the horrific literal facts straight but, disappointingly, captures only a trace of the mental anguish and manipulation that bestowed her source material with its coal-black tragedy.
Taken from the loving arms of his foster parents by unstable mom Sarah (Argento), Jeremiah (Jimmy Bennett for the first half; Dylan and Cole Sprouse for the latter section) finds himself unwillingly thrust into an itinerant life of substance abuse and sex-for-sale, a babe cast into the big bad woods of Middle American tract house communities and interstate truck stops. An odyssey of innocence parentally defiled, Argento’s film strives, from the opening shot of a stuffed animal being waved in Jeremiah’s face, to assume the perspective of her pint-sized protagonist, both through straightforward knee-high point-of-view shots as well as by grotesquely distorting her carnival-esque compositions to create a mood of terrified awe and dread. The result is a funhouse-mirror vibe rooted in squalor, from the decrepit apartments that Sarah and Jeremiah temporarily occupy with her assortment of boyfriends, to the parking lots where she plies her trade as a prostitute, to a combustible crack kitchen where the filth is so tangible that it can almost be felt creeping under one’s fingernails. Still, working with cinematographer Eric Alan Edwards, Argento carefully balances these more out-there inclinations – felt most strikingly in Jeremiah’s visions of cawing, flesh-eating red crows – with conventional setups and chronology, thereby deftly maintaining a tremulous sense of coherence even as her narrative begins spiraling into madness. Article continues below
What the star/director finds more vexing, however, is poignantly conveying the chaos going on inside Jeremiah’s distraught head. With neither narration nor a visual approach fully attuned to the boy’s increasingly insane thoughts (which LeRoy relayed by having Jeremiah recount his own tale), and lacking the compassion and aesthetic control of Greg Araki’s comparable Mysterious Skin, Argento’s Heart is Deceitful remains largely outside of its protagonist, failing to replicate the irrationally self-loathing, sexual identity-confused and sadomasochistic disposition created by mother Sarah’s manipulative threats about the police, social workers and religion. Stuck on a more superficial plane than LeRoy’s penetratingly ugly novel, Argento turns to celebrity stunt casting as a means of enlivening her squalid narrative. But such a skin-deep tack has the unintended effect of turning the project into merely a venue for LeRoy admirers to overact with wild abandon, from Peter Fonda as Jeremiah’s fire-and-brimstone fundamentalist minister grandfather – a stern man of the “spare the rod, spoil the child” school of discipline – to Michael Pitt as a simple-minded fool, Winona Rider as a creepy kid therapist, Kip Pardue as a belt-lashing beau of Sarah’s, and Marilyn Manson as a degenerate who gets a little too intimate with a cross-dressing Jeremiah during the film’s most harrowing, hallucinatory scene.
At the center of this showboating cinematic maelstrom is Argento herself, who embodies the monstrous Sarah as a Courtney Love-by-way-of-Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest tormenting junkie monster. Sporting peroxide blonde hair, an assortment of revealing miniskirts, push-up bras and nighties, and a stupendously awful warble in which her native Italian accent inharmoniously mixes with an affected Southern belle drawl, hers is a performance of grinning, strutting, flailing psychosis that, strangely enough, thrives in large part because of its wholesale artificiality – the more unconvincingly outlandish Argento behaves, the more she seems to astutely tap into the character’s freaked-out lunacy. In the most significant departure from LeRoy’s work, the brutishly noxious film eventually succumbs to happy ending-itis in an attempt to disingenuously transform Sarah’s maternal relationship with Jeremiah into something less like out-and-out violence and more akin to well-intentioned misguidedness. Yet fortunately for The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, such a laughable endeavor is ultimately sabotaged by Argento’s own deliriously uncontrollable hysterics, which, more than anything else in this wacko, willfully transgressive movie, ably locate the selfish, malicious, and unforgivable cruelty of her story’s child-abusing heart.