Gritty fairy tale or unpleasant, trashy potboiler?
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Not only was 'Heaven' a straight-to-DVD affair but it was also a joint production between Miramax and producers in New Zealand. Hence, half the actors in the film are American and the other half are from New Zealand. The locale of the film is never identified and it's very odd to hear the husband and wife protagonists speak in an American accent while their young son speaks in a New Zealand accent.
'Heaven' is a strange movie. It's about this down-on-his-luck architect, Robert Marling going through a bitter divorce who fears losing custody of his young son vis-à-vis his estranged wife, Jennifer, who he is now separated from. Robert takes a job working for a sleazy strip club owner by the name of Stanner. 'Heaven' appears to be a pre-op transsexual who works for Stanner at the club. Despite the fact that Stanner often brutalizes Heaven, Robert turns a blind eye to Stanner's vile and demeaning behavior. We're asked to believe that Robert (who has a strong moral code as evidenced by his later acts of heroism in saving Heaven from being raped by two local punks as well as attempting to save his son after the boy is kidnapped) would simply tolerate Stanner's repulsive treatment of Heaven because he needs the work and also must support a gambling habit. So at times his failure to stick up for Heaven coupled with being overly chummy with the despicable Stanner, undermines his portrait as a sympathetic protagonist.
Heaven's trans-sexuality not only makes her the victim of Stanner's controlling personality but she's also victimized by the film's two other (lesser antagonists)?Jennifer's psychiatrist boyfriend, Melrose, and two nasty bar patrons who Stanner likes for some reason. Heaven is psychic and predicts the two central (and at times, overlapping) events of the film: Robert's mugging and his later intervention, saving Heaven from being raped. We never learn why Heaven has these special powers and it's rather convenient in terms of moving the plot forward when you have a character who can do such extraordinary things. The film's scenarist doesn't help things with a storyline that features events occurring in a non-linear fashion (there are flashbacks and flash forwards and cross-cutting of dialogue that adds to the general confusion).
A good part of the story involves Jennifer's ill-fated romance with her sleazy psychiatrist, Melrose, and subsequent attempt to gain custody of her and Robert's child. Heaven ends up surreptitiously taping Melrose who sexually assaults her (she's also a patient of the shrink) and hands the tapes to Robert who plays one of them at the custody hearing, exposing Melrose as a liar and a criminal. The plot becomes even more frantic when Stanner decides to torch his own club for insurance purposes only to be shot by the two buddies he hires. Finally, Robert saves Heaven from the two punks and he in turn is saved by "The Sweeper", the bouncer who Stanner had fired earlier after getting into a confrontation with the two murderous punks.
One of central implausible moments in 'Heaven' is when Stanner fires The Sweeper. At the beginning of the film, he praises him as the best bouncer who's ever worked for him. But after The Sweeper confronts the two punky bad guys, Stanner takes their side and fires him. Why would a strip club owner who presumably needs to keep his business going by keeping order, fire a competent bouncer and stick up for a bunch of low-life's who could easily make trouble for him? Unless of course he knew all along that he was going to hire the punks to set the club on fire?but that's never made clear at the film's outset.
The main problem with Heaven is with the character of Stanner who is so vile that one cannot believe in him at all. The trick in creating believable antagonists is to give them both sympathetic and unsympathetic attributes. Stanner's 'charming' moments are few and far between. Melrose is a much more sinister and believable bad guy. Heaven (as well as 'The Sweeper') are drawn to the other extreme. They are wholly 'too good', too sympathetic and serve no other function than wearing the mantle of undeserved victim-hood. Robert and Jennifer's tussles are pretty standard stuff, although I think it was a nice touch that Robert doesn't run back to his wife and stay with her in the end.
'Heaven' aspires to be a gritty fairy tale and moves along at a fairly brisk pace. While not always plausible, the film's strength is in its plot. Despite the multitude of unfolding, quirky events, one doesn't care for or believe in these characters. I've alluded to the problems earlier: Stanner's lack of virtually any redeeming qualities; the unexplained quality of Heaven's visions and her one-dimensional portrait as pure victim and Robert and Jennifer's rather pedestrian custody battle. 'Heaven' explores evil only on the surface. It's an unpleasant, trashy potboiler worth watching, but certainly not more than once.