Directed By: Alan Parker
Screenplay By: Alan Parker
Based on the novel Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg
Produced By: Elliot Kastner, Alan Marshall
Cast: Mickey Rourke, Robert De Niro, Lisa Bonet
MPAA Rating: R
Runtime: 113 minutes
Review Date: November 19, 2010
Angel Heart kept me up late last night. Not many films have this effect on me, but this is a stark exception. The film is both mysterious and horrific, pairing a winding detective tale with underlying themes of religion, dark magic, and the power of evil. Supported by strong performances on all counts, the film truly takes flight throughout the first two acts before running into mild turbulence in its final act. The film changes course drastically, in pursuit of a horrific ending that, while certainly frightening, is by no means shocking. While I couldn’t entirely predict the finale, my intuition led me to believe the film would conclude in a similar manner. As a result, my admiration for the story that preceded it diminished, but only slightly. I must reiterate that the story is both riveting and original, but it’s let down by a “shocker” ending that did little to raise my brow.
When a film begins with tenor sax, a desolate alley, and a downtrodden detective in a trench-coat, you know you’re in for a noir. Angel Heart is an excellent example of such, meshing together elements of classic films (M, The Big Sleep) with a contemporary vision that lends it considerable edge. The film is fantastic to look at, with careful composition revealing only what is necessary at the time. Additionally, the landscape photography is simply gorgeous.
Mickey Rourke stars as Harry Angel, a down and out detective who finds his work by placing his name in the yellow pages. A man named Louis Cypher (Robert De Niro) hires him to seek out Johnny Favorite, a man he believes is alive but was recently proclaimed dead. Angel seems off put by Cypher, played by De Niro with calculated creepiness, but accepts the job nonetheless. His first lead takes him to a doctor that allegedly cared for Johnny in the past. When he discovers later that this doctor was murdered, he finds himself entangled in something much greater than he originally anticipated. The momentum picks up after this sequence, never letting go until the film’s final moments.
The tension is remarkable throughout, keeping me at the edge of my seat as I anticipated the detective’s next move. The editing, while choppy and downright discontinuous on several occasions, excels at maintaining a brisk pace and thus the film remains focused throughout. When anchored by Rourke’s desperate performance, we have a protagonist and a narrative worth caring about. Despite my ability to predict the ending to a certain degree, I still was dying to know if was right or not.
Throughout Harry’s journey, he confronts a plethora of characters I dare not describe past their basics: A beautiful young woman (Lisa Bonet) with beliefs in dark spirituality, a blade-wielding blues player (Brownie McGhee), and a strikingly beautiful paramour of Johnny’s named Margaret (Charlotte Rampling). While some characters are more relevant than others, they each have an impact on the story that drives it in entirely new and exciting directions.
This is definitely a film worth seeing. I plan to revisit Angel Heart soon (and seldom do I re-watch movies within the same week) to study what led to its disconcerting finale, hoping that I enjoy the conclusion more after a second viewing. I’m pretty sure, though, that I’m probably going to like the film even less as time passes. Still, it’s worth seeing for De Niro’s performance alone.
Kyle Kogan is a film critic living in Chicago.