The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things begins with the end of the world for six-year-old Jeremiah (Jimmy Bennett): the day he is taken from the foster parents who have raised him and turned over to his birth mother. But the 23-year-old Sarah (Asia Argento) is in fact profoundly disturbed, and Jeremiah's life with her becomes a nightmare of poverty, neglect, abuse and emasculation. The pill-popping Sarah wanders aimlessly with her son in tow, maneuvering through the world via men: living with them, marrying them, or just letting them pay her for sex. Some of these men also beat and rape Jeremiah. The boy is eventually claimed by Sarah's Bible- and child-beating parents, who subject him to the same degradation and abuse that warped his mother. When Sarah discovers her ten-year-old son (played by twins Dylan and Cole Sprouse) preaching on a street corner, she takes him back with her on the road to hell. Her drug habit worsens until she spirals into a heavy crystal-meth addiction and is hauled off as she runs naked and crazed down the highway. The malnourished and exhausted Jeremiah winds up in the same hospital as Sarah, and the film ends with a strange poignancy when she enters his room, removes the IV from his arm, and silently escapes with him. Wearing only their hospital gowns, barefoot and holding hands, they make their way back to her car and drive off into the night.

Asia Argento was the ideal person to adapt JT LeRoy's superb book of stories, because she grasps the essence of LeRoy's fiction and refuses to judge any of the characters, no matter how shocking their behavior is. Also like LeRoy [whose disputed identity has become a media cause célèbre-Ed.], Argento deftly blends the documentarian with the poetic. Her film unflinchingly reveals the American roadside industry of exploiting women, from waitresses to pole dancers to sex workers, as well as the business of huckstering Christianity, which helps turn men like Sarah's father into monsters. But Argento also weaves fantastic distortions throughout the film, notably with the stop-motion animation of Christiane Cegavske: red crows that feed on Jeremiah, lumps of coal that weep and bleed. These extreme effects work beautifully because the entire film is keyed at a higher pitch than normal; the compositions, lighting, editing, sound, music and performances are all skewed to evoke Jeremiah's emotional and psychological state. In this sense, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things is one of the finest expressionist films since the great days of F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang-only with a feeling for color and texture worthy of Derek Jarman.

Argento extracts heartbreaking performances from Jimmy Bennett and the Sprouse twins, and creates a coherent portrait of Jeremiah despite her tag-team of actors. The other roles are also persuasively cast, with excellent though brief supporting work from Peter Fonda and Ornella Muti as Sarah's parents, Michael Pitt as Jeremiah's simpleminded pal Buddy, and an uncredited Winona Ryder as a clueless social worker. But the bravura performance in the film is Argento's. She totally inhabits the role of Sarah and never plays this West Virginia skank for any audience sympathy. Her refusal to compromise results in the film's most affecting scene, in which Jeremiah comforts Sarah when she's in the throes of a drug-induced paranoid breakdown. The boy loves his mother not because she is lovable-she isn't-but because he is loving. The pathos of this moment between them is almost too personal and painful to watch-a conflict of emotion that characterizes this harrowing, extraordinary film.

-Nicole V. Gagné