Monday, August 3, 2009

Angel Heart: Disturbing As Hell

angel heart,movie poster

You guys all know who Mickey Rourke is, right? Yeah, that guy from The Wrestler, the one that kind of looks like Joan Rivers if she was a bodybuilder. Well, guess what? Twenty-two years ago, he kind of looked like Bruce Willis with more hair. Imagine that, right? Turns out, he was a pretty awesome actor back then, too. He was in this one movie called Angel Heart with Robert DeNiro. It came out in 1987 and co-starred Lisa Bonet and was directed by Alan Parker (The Road to Wellville, Pink Floyd: The Wall, Mississippi Burning).

Set in 1955, Harold Angel is a private investigator. He's called by the mysterious lawyers of the equally mysterious Louis Cyphre (DeNiro). Cyphre wants Angel to find a mysterious crooner by the name of Johnny Favorite, as he still owes Cyphre the collateral on a broken contract. Angel searches all over New York and then is directed to New Orleans, where he encounters increasingly bizarre individuals, situations, and flashbacks/visions. He finds himself over his head in a world of voodoo, Satanism, and an ever-growing pile of dead bodies. He suspects that Cyphre has something to do with it, but the true villain may be closer to home than he realizes.

mickey rourke,angel heart

I'm used to current Mickey Rourke, where he's all huge and looks like he's had some plastic surgery. I didn't realize that he used to be a fairly normal-looking dude, and a pretty good actor, at that. He plays the classic noir-inspired New York private dick to a T, and he even deals with all the supernatural craziness like I'd expect: he runs away a lot, though sometimes he fights back first. Like my previous review of The Man Who Wasn't There, this is a neo-noir, though more of the traditional genre definition of taking traditional tropes of the noir genre and updating it with updated style and the horror/psychological angle that they wouldn't have thought to use in original noir. It is a faithful version of noir and hard-boiled detective stories, and certain parts remind me of Chinatown (specifically the nose-guard that he wears at the beach and when he goes to Louisiana reminds me of Jake Gittes's nose-bandage). The horror elements are done well, but not in an over-the-top way. There's a special kind of horror that invokes psychoses and religion, and this does a very good job.

Some of the religious imagery is occasionally ham-fisted and a bit obvious (Louis Cyphre = Lucifer, Harold Angel = Herald Angel, etc.). There's a sizable plot twist in this film, which despite the 18-year-rule I'm hesitant to reveal, because I think it's something that you should really see for yourself. There are several clues along the way, and a few painstakingly placed pieces of visual metaphor (mirrors, fans, the song "The Girl of My Dreams," dogs, chickens), though some make more sense than others. For example, I don't really get what the fans are all about, really, but they appear a lot. Dogs often react quite violently or aggressively towards Angel, and he's got "a thing" about chickens (no, not a "thing for" chickens). The song is pretty subtle, too, but it makes frequent appearances throughout the movie, and Cyphre plays it specifically when he tries to make Angel understand the truth about the plot's insane twist.

Robert DeNiro is pretty cool and creepy in the movie, too. He's all beard-y, and his hair is long, and he has these crazy pointed fingernails like Fu Manchu. Surprisingly enough, Lisa Bonet is also a little spitfire in this, which is both good and bad, and the latter is this example:

lisa bonet,dead chicken,angel heart

She does stuff like this quite a bit in this movie, and she has a somewhat graphic and disturbing sex scene with Mickey Rourke. It ends up being quite violent and intense, and blood is literally raining down on them from the ceiling. She also dances around half-naked and covered in blood with a chicken in the above screenshot, in some sort of strange violence-and-sex-chicken-sacrifice-dance-in-the-woods ceremony which I'm sure has lost all meaning in its endless repetition throughout the generations, and is largely done out of tradition.

Ok, so I'm going to spoil the movie now, and if you don't want to know how it all turns out, you can stop reading. ... Have you stopped reading yet? Ok, so now that we're alone, here's the scoop: It turns out that Harry Angel is really Johnny Favorite. I know, right? Evidently, after the war (which explains Angel's mirror visions, which is of the 1943 homecoming), Favorite sacrificed a young soldier in order to eat his still-beating heart. Favorite sold his soul to the devil (a.k.a. Cyphre) for his singing talent, presumably. He got mixed up in tarot, palmistry, voodoo, and Satanism in Louisiana when he got involved with the daughter of a Satanist.

In an effort to work around the soul he sold to the devil, he basically tries to take the place of Harry Angel through a sacrificial ritual. Unfortunately, he's sent right back to war, and somehow loses al memory of who he originally was, and unknowingly evades Cyphre for the next twelve years. Cyphre then sends him on a wild goose chase to find himself, and in the process, kills everyone who was close to Favorite during his life. Oh, did I mention that Lisa Bonet's character is Favorite's daughter? Yeah. It's pretty gross. He kills her eventually, but he has no memory of killing anyone (he kills something like five people during the course of the film, but as Favorite, not as Angel, if that makes any sense at all). Cyphre gets what he needs from Angel in the end: as the credits roll, we see Angel descending in an elevator (we've seen flashes of this throughout the film), presumably carting his soul to hell.

This film is crazy good, emphasis on crazy. I genuinely enjoy the idea of a hard-boiled detective sent on a supernatural chase to find his original personality, buried deep inside his current psyche after a ritual sacrifice and the War. Rourke and DeNiro give great performances; DeNiro is supremely slimy and creepy (infinitely better than Al Pacino's devil portrayal in The Devil's Advocate), and Rourke is convincing as a hard-living private detective confronting what he can't understand. I give Angel Heart three and a half out of four formerly-normal-looking Mickey Rourkes out of five, or three and a half phobia-inducing chickens out of five.

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