Alan Parker is one of my favorite film directors. Unlike most film directors who are often great in their own ways, Parker is an artist. I don’t think it is any surprise that he directed two of the best filmed musicals ever: Pink Floyd—The Wall and Evita. And that’s not even counting Fame and The Commitments, which are kind of musicals. He has a stunning visual style that somehow manages not to call attention to itself like Martin Scorsese’s (with all due respect to that great artist).
Despite the fact that he has made so many wonderful films (eg Midnight Express), my favorite Parker film is Angel Heart. And I feel that I need to defend it. Parker is well know to me as providing director commentaries during which he says almost nothing. He often gets involved in watching the film and says nothing. And he’s aware of this because he even mentions it from time to time. On one of his commentaries, he even concludes that it is okay that he isn’t saying anything. For the record: no it isn’t.
But on the commentary track for Angel Heart, he mentioned that he had shown the film to his mentor. I don’t currently own the DVD, so I can’t say who it was. But the mentor did not like the film. He claimed that being able to make a film was such a great opportunity that one should only use it to make important films. I don’t know if this is what caused Parker to go on to make Mississippi Burning or the artistically catastrophic The Life of David Gale or other later films of varying quality. But his mentor was wrong—profoundly wrong. Angel Heart is probably the most serious and important film that Parker ever made.
This is my opinion, of course. It is the result of my interest in ontological questions. But before I get to them, I must warn you: if you haven’t seen the film (or read William Hjortsberg’s excellent novel Falling Angel) you should stop reading. In general, I don’t believe in spoilers. But Angel Heart is a great mystery story and you owe it to yourself to watch it cold. So the rest of my article is “below the fold.”
The central question in the film is: what is a soul. We find out eventually that Harry Angel is a man with amnesia who used to be evil. And the film does an excellent job of showing that he’s a very nice guy now. A woman’s hat blows off and he grabs it and gives it back to her. Everyone who knows him seems to like him. He’s a decent guy. But throughout the film, he blacks out, does terrible things, and is none the wiser.
Toward the end of the film, he repeatedly tells Satan, “I know who I am.” But he doesn’t actually know who he is. And this is a deep question that I’ve argued with religious people for years. It has long been my claim that if humans have a soul, it has nothing to do with our personalities. That’s the synapses and electrochemical reactions. The soul must be something much deeper than this. But even Catholic priests balk at this idea.
The thing that they all want to believe is that in heaven, whoever they think they are now will be who they are then. But that’s just silly. Consciousness itself is a kind of weird construct of our brains. As a going concern, it doesn’t exist. Think about it: are you the same person you were ten years ago? Or even ten seconds ago? Of course you’re not! You are always changing. If you weren’t, you couldn’t even tell that you existed!
So at the end, the good personality who is Harry Angel (as opposed to the evil soul of Johnny Favorite) still burns in hell. It is a deeply disturbing way of looking at the world. And by the way, it is one that I don’t accept. But it is a Christian one. All the murders that are committed don’t really matter, because all souls are inherently sinful. It is only through the cleansing blood of Jesus Christ that they are washed clean. And it doesn’t matter if those sins are murder or just the thought of murder.
Angel Heart asks us the most fundamental question imaginable: who are we? And it provides us with the most unsettling answer: we don’t know. We may all think of ourselves as Harry Angel, but we may actually be Johnny Favorite. No horror film has ever scared me in that way. The good guy gets his just punishment. That denouement is still as chilling today as it was when I first saw it almost three decades ago.