Where the Truth Lies
by Michael Joshua Rowin

The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things
Dir. Asia Argento, U.S., Palm Pictures

Innocent and unfathomably wronged, the suffering child is society’s favorite martyr, providing a cathexis for pity even more satisfying than the equally needy outpourings of concern for sensationally victimized adults. The suffering child has a permanent place in the history of cinema: not many other recurring images have provoked as many choked backed tears as the reaction shot of little Timmy or Bobby or Joey longingly looking toward the camera as the realization of the vanishing purity of youth plays out on his face. Piling on humiliation and corruption with the intention of subverting long ago vanquished representations of idyllic childhood, American independent cinema has for the last decade been searching for ever more explicit representations of child martyrdom, superficially disguising the blatant manipulative imagery of traditional Hollywood drama behind layers of realistic, sadistic, and satirical grit. Which is what makes the possible fulfillment of that search, Asia Argento’s The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, so obvious and dull. The film's protagonist may be the offspring of Solondz and Korine, but his purely surface-level traumatic childhood story has as much to say about this experience as any exhibitionist Oprah couch confessional.

Based on the “autobiographical novel” (more on the quotation marks later) by identity-concealing, indie-lit darling JT LeRoy, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things begins with young Jeremiah torn from loving foster parents (rejects from some idyllic Burtonville) and placed in the care of his self-destructive teenage mother Sarah. Thus immediately begins a picaresque nightmare of abuse and neglect: Sarah (Argento) gleefully feeds Jeremiah (played at age seven by Jimmy Bennett; at age eleven by Dylan and Cole Sprouse) acid; Jeremiah attempts to run away from home; Sarah demands Jeremiah pretend he’s her brother (and, at times, her sister) to avoid scaring off boyfriends; one such boyfriend administers severe physical punishment and rape; Sarah leaves Jeremiah completely alone in a house while she goes off on the honeymoon that she also subsequently skips out on. After passing through the hands of bureaucratic social service workers and taken in by Sarah’s bible thumping parents, Sarah illegally takes back Jeremiah, bringing him along for further traveling misadventures involving stripping, fucked-up lovers, prostitution, crystal meth laboratories, and mental illness.

So concerned about the presentation of this horror show is Argento that she doesn’t allow her film to properly develop. She’s more interested in the outsider culture of the seedy Tennessee backwater Jeremiah and Sarah truck through (closer attention is paid to white trash chic wardrobes as donned by the indie icons—Michael Pitt, Winona Ryder, John Robinson—who’ve stopped by the set to try them on) than, say, the relationship between mother and son. Filmed as an extended montage representing Jeremiah's disorientation, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things elides or glosses over too many pivotal moments for character or theme to emerge. For example, Argento might have extended Jeremiah’s time spent absorbing grandfather Peter Fonda's fundamentalist Christian teachings, which would have contrasted different styles of child rearing and mind molding that end in similar exploitative results. Instead, we receive yet another hackneyed portrayal of severe Christian discipline (dealt to Sarah’s real younger brother, played by Robinson) and then the cop-out inter-title, “Three Years Later.” How Jeremiah was brainwashed into a Jesus freak handing out pamphlets on street corners is never uncovered.

Argento continually tries to grab attention by calling upon a variety of cinematic clichés: tons of low-angle POV shots represent child subjectivity; grainy celluloid, flashing lights, and photo montages get trotted out for hallucinatory sequences; Sonic Youth (dear old SY) provide original music; an episodic narrative is supposed to mask over deficiencies of psychological depth. It’s not enough. The worst criticism that can be heaped on a film like The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things is that it fails to expound upon the mindset of a child who stays with a mother who offers such instability. But the story isn’t really Jeremiah’s. That belongs to Sarah, and it says something that we learn more about her direction than her son’s. The ending has her nearly portrayed as a martyr, pursued by visions of the apocalypse as she’s wheeled off to the mental ward, which she then, in an idiotic flash-coda, escapes.

Extra-textual and presumably unintentional, the role Argento gives herself as Jeremiah’s promiscuous punk rock hellion mom is the strangest aspect of The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things. It probably shouldn’t be any more disconcerting to watch an attractive female director giving herself up to the camera’s gaze than it is to watch a hired actress do the same for some lascivious maestro, but the constant attention Argento draws to herself (and/or her character) borders on exhibitionist and cuts into what should be (or would have been) the more pressing concerns of the narrative. A more generous take would afford that the lens acts as Jeremiah’s eyes and that the audience is simply seeing Sarah from his frightened/fascinated vantage point (and, indeed, that’s what’s happening in the scene where Sarah strips, as a “Coal Miner’s Daughter” to Loretta Lynn's “There He Goes”), but enough shots exist far outside this context—and snugly within a purely voyeuristic one—that it becomes difficult to describe them as anything other than self-display.

One scene hints at experimentations with gender and performance that might have made The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things a more ambitious film if these same tropes also exemplified guiding principles. Argento plays Jeremiah playing Sarah—mom dresses the boy in lipstick (“You’d be so pretty as a girl”), provoking him(/her) to try on Sarah’s outfit and dance seductively for her boyfriend (Marilyn Manson). Most likely necessitated by ethical concerns for the child actors’ welfare, this act of condensation/substitution briefly relates Jeremiah’s possible identity crisis and longing for approbation, adding a level of textual meaning beyond the mere shock that would have accompanied an image of a young boy toying with transvestitism. But “possible” is the qualifier here—elsewhere Argento only provides inadequate representations (laughably amateurish claymation ravens and lumps of coal that symbolize, or else literally speak, torment) of Jeremiah’s inner life. Afraid of the confusing emotions that complement the events it dutifully catalogues, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things remains content to brush the face of abuse without deeply considering its effects.

Which brings us to the original source material for Argento’s film. More controversial than the subject matter of The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things is the identity of its author, a mysterious figure always seen in public in drag. Some contend JT LeRoy is real, others think it’s a pseudonym, bigger doubters charge the whole thing is an outright fabrication, a hoax currently fooling the literary world and hipster elite. A posting on the Internet Movie Database even suggests that the narratives told in The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things and LeRoy’s first book, Sarah, are compiled from psychiatric case histories of abuse victims. In a recent New York magazine article about the controversy, Stephen Beachy writes, mirroring a fair description of the film, “The details in [LeRoy’s] fiction struck me as equally vague [as his identity]. I came away from reading Sarah knowing nothing about truck-stop prostitution in West Virginia or about West Virginia. This is less true of his book of stories, in which I could at least imagine that the author had been to Fairy Stone Park in Virginia and knew something about meth labs. The stories are full of clichéd white-trash characters and vague, nondenominational, child-whipping fundamentalists.” LeRoy, for his/her part, denies not existing—after getting an article nixed by the New York Times because of the charges, he/she stated, “I've always played with identity and gender.” Personally, I don’t care who, or even if, LeRoy is. What matters is the quality of the writing, which always gets lost in the hype pit that is pop culture. Same rules apply to Argento’s film. And her adaptation of LeRoy’s childhood memoir is so depersonalized, so devoid of observation and unique subjectivity, as to further assumptions that LeRoy is indeed giving audiences murky, vicarious accounts that merely update society’s favorite survivalist tale. Or, worse yet, that LeRoy really isn’t anything after all.

Postscript—This review was written before recent revelations unmasked Laura Albert as the author and mastermind behind JT LeRoy, confirming Beachy’s hypothesis. The strange cases of JT LeRoy and James Frey—the more famous memoirist shamed by verified charges claiming he fabricated significant portions of his memoir—do not constitute a new phenomenon, but are the latest in a long history of literary hoaxes. What’s new this time around is that falsehoods are now in the service of forging an authenticity of degradation and survival, upping the ante in the non-fiction squalor porn sweepstakes, which more and more Americans look toward for reassurance and vicarious thrills—Frey panders to the Oprah crowd, LeRoy works the hip demographic. Aside from the rumors swirling around LeRoy, what seemed off about the writer could even be gauged from The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things film, about as shallow of a personal story as ever committed to screen but whose failures couldn’t be solely ascribed to either Argento or LeRoy. The strange thing is it’s still difficult to tell even after the truth about LeRoy has emerged. It must sting to have one’s hoax discovered, but it must hurt even more to direct a disposable feature film on the basis of that hoax.