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With: Asia Argento, Jimmy Bennett, Dylan Sprouse, Cole Sprouse, Winona Ryder, Peter Fonda, Michael Pitt, Ben Foster, Jeremy Renner
Written by: Asia Argento, Alessandro Magania, based on stories by J.T. LeRoy
Directed by: Asia Argento
MPAA Rating: R for intense depiction of child abuse/neglect, strong sex and drug content, pervasive language and some violence
Running Time: 98
Date: 05/15/2004
IMDB

The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things (2006)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Agony of 'Deceit'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The official punk movement in rock music only lasted a few years, from the Sex Pistols and the Clash to about the time that Blondie and the Talking Heads hit the radio. But the punk spirit existed well before it had a name and long after the official time of death.

What about punk movies? Do they exist, and if so, what kinds of movies are they? Certainly Luis Bunuel's Un Chien Andalou (1928) would count. And Alfred E. Green's Baby Face (1933), John Cassavetes' Shadows (1959), Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs (1971), Werner Herzog's Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), James Toback's Fingers (1978), Abel Ferrara's Ms. 45 (1981) or anything by Tex Avery or Rainer Werner Fassbinder would deserve consideration. As would almost any movie that has been described as "irreverent" or "maverick."

If we can conclusively establish the punk movie as a genre, then Asia Argento's The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things -- if for no other reason than its amazing title -- is the latest member. It opens today at San Francisco's Castro Theater for a week's run.

And in fact, it's this fast-moving, devil-may-care filmmaking that keeps The Heart Is Deceitful dangling just above its relentlessly harrowing subject matter.

The film is based on short stories by the mysterious author J.T. LeRoy, who -- to contribute more to the punk sensibility -- was recently outed as a phony. Writer Laura Albert supposedly wrote the prose, while Savannah Knoop appeared as LeRoy in public. (As of this writing, this information has neither been confirmed nor denied.)

According to the now-bogus legend, LeRoy actually lived through the horrors depicted in the stories and in the film. It's a laundry list of atrocities, beginning when a young boy is snatched from his happy foster home by his birth mother, a punk rocker, stripper, junkie and truckstop hooker called Sarah (played by triple-threat Argento).

During their time together, the boy, Jeremiah (played by Jimmy Bennett at age seven and twins Dylan and Cole Sprouse at age 11), is given drugs, dressed up as a girl, left behind for several days locked in an apartment, imprisoned by religious zealots, raped, beaten and much more.

Any time Jeremiah begins to grow comfortable in his surroundings or believes he's found a friend or a kindred spirit, his world comes tumbling down and it's off to a new adventure.

The daughter of the infamous Italian horror director Dario Argento (Suspiria, Phenomena), Asia is a silky, deadly beauty who began acting as a teen in her father's films Trauma (1993), The Stendhal Syndrome (1996) and The Phantom of the Opera (1998).

She followed that by a few appearances in American maverick films such as Abel Ferrara's New Rose Hotel (1998), Gus Van Sant's Last Days and George A. Romero's Land of the Dead (both 2005); she will also be seen later this year in Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette. (Her very presence seems to suggest a punk movie.)

Unfortunately, most moviegoers know her as Vin Diesel's co-star in the brain-dead XXX (2002), but that notoriety also allowed her feature writing, directing and acting debut Scarlet Diva to receive a small American art-house release the same year.

As shown by both films, the one thing the younger Argento does not lack is bravery. She is prepared to go any length to get the job done, whatever that may be; if the films have any failing it's an emotional void. In showing her fearless punk attitude, Argento doesn't really let us inside.

Like her father, Argento does dabble in a few nightmarish sequences of garish unreality, and she includes a recurring visual metaphor, red crows, to indicate that things are going to get really bad. Ironically, this phantasmagoria makes the film work better, since it avoids the harsh, dead-on glare of realism.

A raft of star cameos (Winona Ryder, Peter Fonda, Michael Pitt, Ben Foster, etc.) accomplishes the same thing. They provide a small spark of humor and comfort, both aiding and hindering the film's purpose.

In the lead role, Argento cuts loose with a kind of Nancy Spungen/Courtney Love act. Via this showy centerpiece performance, Argento the director successfully bequeaths the soul of the film to Jeremiah.

Her adroit combination of fast and fearless applies shockingly well to the child's story. She never belabors a point and never sticks around too long during a horrible incident. She actually shows quite a bit less than one might imagine, and most of the horror comes while Jeremiah witnesses his mother doing unspeakable things.

Oddly, we actually get to know the youngster throughout his tribulations. We see him trying to make the best of everything. He delights in a potato-peel fight with his brethren at the house of worship, and worries that his intrusion into a basement meth lab will result in his losing cartoon privileges.

It's almost uplifting to see how much this kid can withstand and even get used to -- until a terrifying scene in a coal bin. Jeremiah begins play-acting a family story with chunks of coal, smashing one, drawing reddish gore onto its little "face" (Argento actually animates the little critter for emphasis) and telling it that it only had itself to blame.

That single moment drives the film home. By adjusting and adapting to his quagmire environment, Jeremiah slowly deprives himself of empathy. If you think The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things is scary, just wait until this child -- or another like him -- grows up and begins interacting with the rest of the world.

DVD Details: Palm Pictures' DVD comes with a terrific Asia Argento commentary track (aided by producer Chris Hanley), plus features on J.T. LeRoy, trailers and other stuff.