'LONELY HEARTS' in the LIMELIGHT; Murder Tale Shot in Jacksonville Makes Favorable Debut at New York's Tribeca Film Festival

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Byline: MATT SOERGEL

NEW YORK - Lonely Hearts, the latest high-profile film shot in Jacksonville, had its public premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival Sunday night before an audience that chuckled at its dark humor and gasped in shock at some of its sudden and graphic violence.

On a balmy evening before the screening, stars John Travolta and James Gandolfini, who grew up as neighbors in New Jersey, walked up the red carpet outside the Tribeca Performing Arts Center, with first-time filmmaker Todd Robinson at their side.

A flock of photographers and camera crews battled for their attention, calling to them over and over while jostling for position. Once inside, Robinson introduced his stars and his film to the packed auditorium, then thanked his wife and two young children.

"You're going to close your eyes and plug your ears at certain parts, right?" he asked his children from the stage. Later, as the film got to one particularly gruesome segment, Robinson's daughter was taken from the theater, returning after it was over.

Lonely Hearts is indeed dark, but it's also an ambitious and literate film, well acted from top to bottom and quite evocative in its portrayal of America just after World War II. Travolta and Gandolfini are typically solid in their roles as Long Island homicide detectives, while Salma Hayek and Jared Leto could generate some buzz from their showier, chilling portrayals of serial killers who prey on vulnerable women.

Robinson doesn't try to duck violence or the consequences. He said the film is meant to show how corrosive violence can be on those exposed to it, as well as their families. Its opening credits scene, set to jaunty period music, cuts between a woman preparing for an anniversary dinner and bloody crime photos from that time. And as the opening credits end, a woman commits suicide by leaning over a bathtub and pulling the trigger of a gun she holds to her head.

That sets the tone for a tale of psychotic obsession, guilt and murder. It has some humor, mostly in the fractious relationship between detectives played by Gandolfini and Scott Caan. But for the most part the mood is bleak, as befits a story about a troubled cop tracking serial killers. It's based on the real-life story of the so-called Lonely Hearts killers, Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck, lovers who in the years after World War II posed as brother and sister while Martinez seduced and swindled lonely women. That eventually led to murder after murder, several of which are re-created in graphic detail in the film.

Lonely Hearts functions as both a police procedural and a character study of men of their time who kept their emotions buttoned up. …