Now that JT Leroy has been exposed as a literary scam, it’ll be curious to see the response to Asia Argento’s film adaptation of The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things. If one peels away the hype and controversy, Leroy’s novel was a lyrical depiction of the way an abused child reinvents the world as a tool for survival. Sometimes it felt like shock value for its own sake, veering into hip surrealism simply because the maddeningly elliptical can disguise a lack of substance, but the author’s prose was strong and sure. Leroy may have been fake, but the words felt accurate and the child’s-eye POV helped the reader overcome the numerous indignities and horrors ladled upon the young narrator.
But Argento doesn’t translate Leroy’s novel into the visual language of film, or at least she doesn’t conjure up the same feeling the book does. The focus seems less on the child Jeremiah (played with punk-rock intensity by Jimmy Bennett at age seven and both Cole and Dylan Sprouse at age 11) than on the kid’s screwed up young mother Sarah (played by Asia Argento). Even in scenes where Sarah isn’t present, it still feels like she’s the movie’s driving force, waiting to swoop back into the story and drag Jeremiah with her on her single-minded road to drug-induced hell.
From one abusive boyfriend to the next, Sarah sleeps her way through a rogue’s gallery of addicts, dealers, and redneck truck drivers, with every other bad boyfriend also being a child molester. Throughout, Argento struggles through a mangled Southern accent (with constant references made to the fact that she is half-Italian, making one wonder if halfway through the movie they realized how unconvincing she is as an American), and her truly weird performance is a cacophony of insane giggles, teeth gnashing, and bug-eyed junkie paranoia. Like the movie, it’s never dull to behold, yet at the same time full of itself and completely bogus.
This is where Leroy’s book and Argento’s movie fail to cross paths. The film awkwardly shifts gears from gritty independent film realism to gonzo hysteria without ever feeling accurate. The worn-down poverty row apartments and hotels somehow feel like they’re being visited by someone who lacks a true understanding of how poor people live in America. The grim and more mundane reality is that junkies, child molesters, and their red-state parents have to get through the day like anyone else, and movies like The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things elevates them to the level of mythology because they’re seen through the eyes of a filmmaker who has never been there. (This makes her uniquely qualified to join the cast of a Lars von Trier film.)
Argento seems like the poor little rich girl daughter of a successful film director (her father Dario). If she identified with Leroy’s novel, it only feels explicit in the movie when the child Jeremiah is taken to live with his religious zealot grandparents (Ornella Muti and Peter Fonda), who live in an opulent house far removed from the gritty world their daughter is exploring and opts to lose herself in. Argento has contempt for this world, painting it as a cult of sadistic religiosity where the minister’s flock scrub themselves every morning with Brillo pads and walk on tenderfoots to escape Grandfather’s wrath, and his belt. If you think therapy will help these kids, guess again. Argento reserves her deepest contempt for the social worker played by Winona Ryder as a saccharine-voiced idiot. She’s watching the clock half the time she’s trying to get Jeremiah to reenact his child rape with dolls. It’s a performance so over-the-top and grotesque it makes Argento’s turn as Sarah seem like a model of classical understatement. In other words, like so much of the film, it feels all wrong.
That’s not to say there aren’t at least half a dozen or more exciting moments in Heart Is Deceitful, because sometimes the film explodes with a willful anarchic intensity. When Sarah marries Aaron (Jeremy Renner) and leaves little Jeremiah alone in her new husband’s house for the weekend with no food other than a few slices of American cheese in the fridge, the little lad romps about the house all weekend in underwear and cowboy boots ripping things apart and drawing all over the walls with magic marker, accompanied by the raging soundtrack of Sonic Youth. When Aaron gets home after being dumped by Sarah, it’s a wonderfully charged moment as Jeremiah casually awaits a beating with a studded belt. The moment is beautifully acted by Renner and little Jimmy Bennett, whose “fuck you” insouciance doesn’t feel precocious or precious. Since we’re indulging in the world of JT Leroy, it’s fairly predictable that Aaron discreetly rapes Jeremiah off-screen and drops him off on the side of the road, but Renner makes a big impact in his maybe five minutes of screen time and achieves a disturbing pathos by saying, genuinely, “I’m sorry.”
The bizarre and hysterical performance by Argento as well as her frequently addled storytelling techniques get balanced out by sequences like the one mentioned above, and by the cameos by Renner and a bunch of other good actors Argento enlisted (John Robinson from Elephant, Jeremy Sisto, Michael Pitt, and Marilyn Manson feel like a who’s who of quality independent film talent). But every time the movie starts grounding itself, it blasts off into Weirdsville. Having Jeremiah obsessively talking to a black piece of coal (whose face appears in a bit of silly claymation) and the extended sequence where Sarah and Jeremiah get high on cough syrup and race around a supermarket parking lot are famous passages from the novel whose poetry simply doesn’t translate. A metaphor on the page (already pretentious) just comes off as dippy on-screen.
The climactic beat suggests that this torture-drone of a life will continue ad infinitum, just in case you didn’t get the point by the third or fourth time the kid got damaged. Once a number of anecdotes about Sarah and Jeremiah have been exhausted, and the child has been raped and drugged for about the 100th time, the film wraps itself up and calls it a day. It fails big time, but to its credit the movie is so consistently off the wall in its failures that it can’t easily be written off. And to its credit, perhaps, it never feels single-mindedly dirty (probably because it all feels like bullshit anyway. It’s just exhilarating and caustically perverse.