Angel Heart begins as many film noirs do, with the grim patron of New York City – nominally in the 1950s but very much marinated in the nightmarish mental collapse style of noir so popular in comic books around the late 1980s. It’s a city with a death wish, but Angel Heart moves beyond the urban decay that so christened 1980s cinema and into the soaking wet juices and oils of sewage-filled Southern decay and centuries of forlorn backwater communities. For a decade of cinema so replete with misbegotten depictions of city life, Angel Heart is not only a lurid noir genre piece, but a trenchant reminder of the areas left unspoken and unanswered in industrial-focused American cinema. It quickly transplants its hero from the deathless New York to the backwoods of Louisiana, and the film follows him. It becomes a tale of Southern conjuration, a capsule of thought that reconnects the mystique of the urban nightmare with the cruelty and majesty of the rural areas of American imagination from whence those cities grew out of the earth.
There’s an almost epistemological sense of history to Angel Heart, as though it is somehow spiritually connected to the reclusive marshes and the crestfallen, possibly poisoned, wells of Louisiana, where detective Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke, then at the top of the world) must venture, on sabbatical from his day job perusing the nether realms of New York as a detective. His quest is to find a man named Jonathan Liebling, but that mystery only superficially describes the cheeky pallor of Angel Heart. Then, the film isn’t so interested in explaining itself as much as it is invested in the simple art of play. The film doesn’t need explanation; all it really needs is Robert De Niro turning a pay-check cameo into a lurid caricature of the depraved – pitch-black goatee, fingernails like sickles, the camera as his slave. From there, anything is on the table, and we understand director Alan Parker’s mission statement: to screw with us, and to never look back.
Parker wasn’t a great director, but he was versatile, and he pledged himself to the demons of every film genre he could find. When he, as most directors eventually do, turned to film noir, he decided the only way to go was right to the bone. Angel Heart, thus, is an expressionist horror film masquerading as a noir, horror’s somewhat welterweight progeny. Not that noir is milquetoast, but compared to, say, Sam Spade, Harry Angel is downright mutinous, and the film follows suit. It is a carnivorous, conniving little beast of a film, an aesthetic tour-de-force with steamy, luxuriantly nasty cinematography by Michael Seresin (originally a collaborator with Parker whose career went away when Parker’s did, although he is on an uptick again with the likes of Gravity, Dawn of the Plant of the Apes, and the more serious of the two upcoming Jungle Book adaptations on his resume). Not to mention some spidery, autumnal music by Trevor Jones and Courtney Pines that feels just like Robert Johnson at the crossroads with the devil right over his shoulder once again.
An outré motion picture then, we have, with Parker playing things as both an homage to noir (essentially, Angel Heart asks “why stop at noir when you can go all the way?”) and a sly rib-poking at noir’s expense. Take a grotesquely hilarious scene where Robert De Niro has a field day with an egg, turning an off-kilter exercise in un-shelling it into an act both erotic and disquieting. Elsewhere Rourke – in a wonderfully self-mocking performance as a beyond-scrubby detective – is forced to wear a pasty nose cover to protect his sense of smell from the sun, visually essaying Jack Nicholson in Chinatown without having to go through the blood to arrive there. Then, the film has plenty of blood for you; I can’t imagine what fun Parker, upon writing the screenplay for the film based on the novel Falling Angel, imagined he would have directing the rain-and-blood slathered sex scene between Rourke and Lisa Bonet (giving a wonderful physical performance of reckless animism). Like a less abstract Dario Argento, he delivers.
The only flaw with the film is that stylistic excess is almost all there is to it, which is both a blessing and a curse. Angel Heart is not a deep motion picture, nor an especially interrogative one. Nor is it entirely excusable on racial lines; voodoo is a heavy plaything upon which the film layers replete exoticism. Although it is moderately invested in exploring voodoo rituals as beacons of black culture and not simply dissents into the malformed, the film still refracts black culture into a lens designed to chill white audiences to the bone.
Of course, the film isn’t free of tricks up its sleeve, even morally; the ultimate resolution suggests a great overpowering evil inhabiting the predominantly white New York city – the film’s ultimate evil is a parody of supposedly cultured and eccentric elites, not any rural New Orleans natives. Meanwhile, the images that underscore the African-American diaspora and its sense of communal effervescence are not so much condescending to voodoo as unsure of them and curious about them. Community is a ritual of freedom in Angel Heart, and if it isn’t presented as a uniform good per-se, it is treated as a cultural artifact of importance and even necessity, one portion of the film’s lingering, partial expression of eulogy for the undercurrents of black community in Louisiana.
Which isn’t to say the film is committed to exploring this community; it is, again, a superficial horror film doctored up in the very physical freedom that characterizes rituals of voodoo to begin with. There is a sense of being carried bodily forward along the brewing waves of social disarray within Angel Heart’s gloriously untamed animism. But it is, arguably, a sublimely ornamented coffin with no cadaver in it. Any hypothetical masterpiece of social commentary and human melancholy is left buried deep with Angel Heart, and no simply shovel will dig it out. For instance, there is a great deal to be done with the contrast between the freedom offered by the collectivity of black Louisiana and the emptiness of Harry’s solitary life, a contrast that is left totally entombed and unexplored by the film altogether.
But, taken as an almost-Grand Guignol exercise in disassembled body parts and suggestivity – taken as a sheer explosion of cinematic stylistic bravura – it is hard to look away from. Just like any good ritual in any culture, especially American, you don’t always need depth if you’ve got style, and that’s no backhanded compliment for you. Angel Heart is magnetic moviemaking, superficiality or not. It reminds that cinema is its own trance-like superstition: like any good supernatural tale, you don’t have to believe it for it to hold power over you. Reason can deny it, but whatever. You feel it in the bone.