Like many families caring for a sick relative, the brother and sister we follow in My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To revolve their entire worlds around their younger sibling. Thomas (Owen Campbell), anemic and hermetically sealed from outside society, burns instantly from sunlight, and can only survive on human blood.
It’s up to Dwight (Patrick Fugit) and occasionally Jessie (Ingrid Sophie Schram), a waitress at a diner on the outskirts of town, to procure their brother’s unwilling donors. This may involve trolling homeless Dumpster divers, tailing sex workers, luring the undocumented with promises of a shelter, a john, a job. If all goes well, their victims’ veins will supply a few days’ nourishment for Thomas, and their bodies will join the makeshift graveyard in the back of the family home.
Writer/director Jonathan Cuartas shot the movie in Salt Lake City, but it’s set in an Anytown sort of urban wasteland, a John Carpenter place where the streets are filthy, crime is omnipresent and hopes are dashed. (The menacing drone score, an eerie and welcome accompaniment, evokes Carpenter, too.) For this unorthodox family, it’s always dark outside, and life is an endless string of miseries. Even Cuartas’ choice of the old square Academy aspect ratio constricts his characters’ actions, keeping all of them, like Thomas, in a box.
Dwight, who despite the weekly (daily?) evidence to the contrary, is no killer by disposition, secretly dreams of escaping to an idyll called Miami Beach, a crowded paradise with all the sunlight that’s prohibited in his shuttered cocoon. (Cuartas, not coincidentally, is a Miami native.)
We know little of how Thomas came to suffer so, or if there are others in the world managing with the same ailment. But in recasting vampirism as one of a spectrum of debilitating illnesses, and treating his able-developed characters like parents of a special-needs child, Cuartas sheds the mythos of the vampire’s prior cinematic associations — the elegance, the lust, the camp, the humor. Its closest antecedent is the chilly Scandinavian drama Let the Right One In, but Cuartas’ uncompromising debut feels less commercial, with protagonists less “likeable.” It tests the limits of our compassion, pushing our tolerance to the brink.
Thomas, for instance, comes across as sullen, petulant, ungrateful — understandable given his reality but hardly a profile in saintliness or even acceptance. This makes it easier to consider the value propositions in the blood shed to keep Thomas’s blood pumping, and hints at the film’s pungent politics. Are the lives of our culture’s so-called “dregs” worth any less, by any metric, than that of a vampire who produces nothing for society, and who stays home and literally feeds off the livelihoods of others?
After all, Cuartas’ presentation of the victims — the indigent, prostitutes, immigrant labor — is no accident. These are the varied substrata of American life that xenophobic moralists like Tucker Carlson rail against night after night, the ones “dirtying” our once-great cities. These groups have been so demonized by one of our political parties for so many decades that conservative hardliners will doubtlessly see this film through a different lens, appreciating the valiant efforts of a man in rooting out the city’s undesirables in order to preserve the hallowed family unit at all costs.
Don’t fall into that trap. My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To is the most brutal critique of predatory capitalism since Parasite. The answer to the question from two paragraphs above is an unequivocal no.
MY HEART CAN’T BEAT UNLESS YOU TELL IT TO. Director: Jonathan Cuartas; Cast: Patrick Fugit, Ingrid Sophie Schram, Owen Campbell, Moises L. Tovar, Judah Bateman, Katie Preston; Distributor: Dark Sky Films; Rating: Not rated;
Now playing on VOD/digital platforms