There’s a big obstacle to appreciating “The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things.” It’s based on a novel by a writer who doesn’t really exist. As revealed in several magazine and newspaper articles over the past year, hustler-turned-novelist J. T. Leroy is the invention of San Francisco musician Laura Albert. When her hoax was finally proven, many former Leroy fans felt betrayed. They now find the novels sentimental, clichéd, and badly written. Somehow these problems were forgivable when an uneducated youth was pouring his heart onto the page, but coming from a middle-aged woman who never lived the life she wrote about, their flaws are glaring. As exploitative as the Leroy scam was, the words of his books, which were always presented as fiction, remain exactly the same. Only our assumptions about their authenticity—about the authority the writer brings to the table—have changed.
As a film, “The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things” is blissfully unconcerned with keeping it real. A nightmarish vision of the South from an Italian director, Asia Argento, who cast herself in the second largest role, it suggests what Todd Solondz might make if he finally achieved some mature perspective on life’s cruelty, rather than being content to simply catalogue it.
Seven-year-old Jeremiah (Jimmy Bennett) lives comfortably with a foster family until his mother Sarah (Argento) comes one day to return to his care. Drinking heavily and taking drugs, she lives with a series of unstable boyfriends. After being molested by one, Jeremiah ends up in the care of his Christian fundamentalist grandfather (Peter Fonda). He becomes a child preacher. Three years pass, and Jeremiah is now played by the brothers Cole and Dylan Sprouse. Sarah finds him preaching on the street and swoops him away. Growing even more desperate, she heads close to madness, threatening to drag him down with her.
A flat plot description would make “The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things” sound like one of the most harrowing films ever made. However, Argento presents it with a lyricism that makes its horrors bearable. Living with Sarah, Jeremiah quickly adopts the defense mechanism of tuning out the world. Sarah and Jeremiah in the car together one night, she gives him drugs to stay awake, and the blurred headlights he watches take on a new vividness. These hallucinations aren’t far from his everyday perceptions. In situations where a meth lab explosion is as likely as a night spent watching cartoons and eating popcorn, a sense of unreality is a survival mechanism. Argento relies on disorienting camera angles and movement, even animation, to keep the mood off-kilter.
Argento’s debut, “Scarlet Diva,” was an impressively personal, if not autobiographical, work about the difficult life of a young actress. It was memorable both for Argento’s willingness to exploit her own body and for her anger at the many men who’ve screwed her over, literally and figuratively. Its cast of characters includes caricatures of director Abel Ferrara and former Miramax head Harvey Weinstein.
Argento’s performance in “The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things” is similarly raw. It’s not the kind of seamless work that brings home Oscars. Adopting a regional accent in one’s second language must be one of the most difficult tasks an actor faces, and she doesn’t quite pull it off. However, she makes Sarah something larger than a villain. Especially on drugs, the character shows a capacity for tenderness, even if it goes hand in hand with a willingness to tell Jeremiah that she wanted to abort him.
Most of the weaknesses of “The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things” stem from its source material. Its view of Southern life—especially religion, which it views with utter contempt—and presentation of Sarah’s boyfriends as a long string of redneck boogey men suggest that Albert steeped herself in clichés about the region.
The film’s strengths are mainly visual, but they also result from Argento’s attitude toward the characters. Humanism is easy when you’re depicting nice people. Having sympathy for the devil is harder. Argento treats Sarah with a great deal of empathy—in the end, she’s as much a victim as Jeremy, which excuses none of her actions. She centers her film as much around Sarah’s plight as Jeremiah’s. In the end, “The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things” is a mother’s nightmare, grounded in a female—if not feminist—perspective. It would be a shame if Argento’s powerful vision goes ignored—or not taken seriously—because of Albert’s shenanigans.