Substitute Michal Pospisil's late winner for Hearts was overshadowed by an ugly on-pitch brawl which saw home defender Jose Goncalves sent-off.
Pospisil scored an undeserved winner for Hearts
The two sides cancelled each other out for most of an uneventful game.
Both negatively played five across the midfield and neither goalkeeper had a save to make in the first half.
Kilmarnock had the better of a livelier second-half but Pospisil's late header from a Laryea Kingston free-kick snatched all three points for Hearts.
Hearts suffered a blow before kick-off when Marius Zaliukas - the Edinburgh derby goal hero against Hibs - was injured in the warm-up and was replaced by Tomas Kancelskis.
Both sides played five in midfield, and that was where play was concentrated in the opening 15 minutes.
Neither keeper was called into action other than to collect overhit through balls or defensive passes.
Christophe Berra headed the first effort on target from Bruno Aguiar's 18th-minute corner but Peter Leven comfortably cleared at the far post.
Aguiar put in two more dangerous crosses in the proceeding minutes but the Killie defence coped easily.
Kingston shot harmlessly wide from 25 yards as both sides struggled to create openings.
Kilmarnock defender Frazer Wright wins the ball from Andrius Velicka
The Ghanaian looked the brightest Hearts player and he showed his frustration at the lack of options as he kept possession well before being forced deeper and deeper.
Killie's best attacking moments came from corners but the closest they came in the opening half was when Ford met a Leven corner and looped a header yards over.
Kingston came closer from long range but Graeme Smith watched his powerful strike fly two yards past the post.
The home side produced some better football moments later but Velicka's diving header was off target following an Ivaskevicius cross.
Steven Naismith fired Colin Nish's low centre back across goal at the other end but the ball drifted out before Nish troubled Craig Gordon with his follow-up.
Hearts' top scorer Velicka looked isolated up front and fans were left baffled when he was taken off for fit-again winger Neil McCann.
Ivaskevicius moved inside from the right wing to assume the role of lone striker.
Aguiar moved wide and his dangerous cross just evaded McCann before Brellier threw himself at the ball in vain at the far post.
Leven had Killie's best opening midway through the second half when a set-piece fell to him just inside the box but his shot bounced harmlessly wide.
As the game headed towards a stalemate, Pospisil popped up to nod home his fourth goal of the season from Kingston's precise free-kick to help Hearts close the gap on Aberdeen to three points with five games to go.
A late tackle from Gary Wales on Berra sparked an injury-time melee which saw Goncalves sent off for sprinting 40 yards to remonstrate with the former Hearts man.
Momo Sylla was fortunate to escape action after running in to defend his team-mate and appearing to push Goncalves, with both benches heavily involved in the incident.
Hearts: Gordon, Karipidis, Kancelsku, Berra, Goncalves, Ivaskevicius (Pilibaitis 89), Aguiar (Pospisil 74), Kingston, Brellier, Driver, Velicka (McCann 65). Subs Not Used: Banks, Wallace, Tall, Neilson.
Sent Off: Goncalves (90).
Goals: Pospisil 78.
Kilmarnock: Smith, Fowler, Greer, Ford (O'Leary 46), Hamill (Locke 82), Wales, Sylla, Frazer Wright, Leven, Naismith, Nish (Di Giacomo 72). Subs Not Used: Harpur, Campbell, Quinn, Skora.
Ref: M Ritchie (Scotland).