Based on the “autobiographical” work of J.T. Leroy, an author who may or may not be a fictional construct, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things announces itself as “unreliable.” Asia Argento’s film opens and ends with a dog-eared, underlined copy of the book. One page reveals the Biblical source of the title originates, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?”
The tale that follows is told from a child’s point of view. Removed from his foster home and returned to a troubled and abusive mother, seven-year-old Jeremiah (Jimmy Bennett) must contend with her misplaced need and rampant irresponsibility. On their reunion, Sarah (Asia Argento) announces, “I fought for you and you’ll have fight for me, you’re all I’ve got.” From here he proceeds to expose him to abusive men and painful situations, entirely unable to care for him.
Sleeping in the bathroom of a man Sarah has just met, Jeremiah clings to his ragged smiley face cushion, surrounded by Playboy pictures and the sound of sexual congress. Left alone for days in a locked house, living on Kraft cheese slices, he draws a dozen or so faces on a wall, childlike but also tellingly grotesque. This is the world as he sees it. The camera closes in on one of drawings, then cuts directly to a similar expression on the face of the man who returns to the house to rape him.
Following this ordeal, Jeremiah goes into hospital, therapy, and a care facility, where once again the grown-up world is a place of unremitting cruelty. The therapist (Winona Ryder) bullies him to admit to his molestation, forcing him to say, “It’s not the little boy’s fault” by threatening punishment if he doesn’t. Whether he says it is or not, the boy feels at fault. His subsequent guardian, his grandfather (Peter Fonda), continues this pattern, deploying the weapon of sanctimonious religious instruction. Sarah and the grandfather both use “the belt” on Jeremiah, this violence dissolving the seeming difference between their secular and devout frames of reference.
Formally, Jeremiah’s sense of disorder is realised in close-ups of his tormentors’ mouths forming ugly words or panning shots taken from the diminutive height of a child. His interior struggle is made visual in garish animations of malevolent birds and lost limbs. His “split” self is literalised when an older version of Jeremiah is played by both Dylan and Cole Sprouse, as well as the actor who plays his mother, Asia Argento. Telling Jeremiah she originally wanted a girl, the mother points out their physical similarities, then transforms Jeremiah with clothes, makeup, and a wig. Wearing this costume within the reach of one of his mother’s dissolute partners (Marilyn Manson), the boy suffers more abuse, this time as he is played by Argento.
The suspension of disbelief required for this actor-switching suggests the film’s interest in how fantasy works, as a means to survive unbearable pain as well as a means to sell an idea. The tensions between the real and the unreal underline Jeremiah’s confusion as it creates yours. When Jeremiah scribbles a note to his mother — “I love you, goodbye” — The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things seems to offer a brief moment of narrative grace, the protagonist’s escape. But it provides little in terms of relief from the barrage of adult irresponsibility on display. A work of fiction representing the cruelty and neglect that are common in the real world, it indicts individual adults as well as the “care system” that only perpetuates abuse. It is in this painful evocation that the film appears most reliable, regardless of any debate over an author’s veracity.