“The Heart Machine”
is a tries-too-hard title that sounds like a medical drama or perhaps a
robot romance. But it is nothing of the sort. Thank goodness.
Instead, this insightful drama layered with subtle thriller elements
aims for the kind of observations that Jason Reitman’s over-reaching
“Men, Women & Children” failed to fully fulfill regarding humankind’s
emotional disconnection in the midst of a digital media explosion. On
the continuum of films about gadget-enhanced lifestyles, “The Heart Machine”
lies somewhere between the AOL love letter “You’ve Got Mail” and the
more cautionary “Her” on the issue of what effect all this technology is
having on society.
Reitman went overboard with an excessive amount of obvious story strands
demonstrating the dangers and drawbacks inherent in viewing life
through the artificial prism of Facebook, porn videos, gaming, texting
and escort sites, writer/director Zachary Wigon opts for a less
bludgeoning, more introspective approach in his impressive feature
places his trust in a pair of attractive, engaging leads and a bustling
though deglamorized urban bubble to do most of the heavy lifting. That
his movie easily summons deserved comparisons to “Catfish,” “Vertigo”
and even “Blow-Up,” thanks to the underlying tension he builds through
his narrative choices and long uncut shots, is admirable indeed.
is a simple setup, really. Cody (John Gallagher Jr. of TV’s “The
Newsroom” and “Short Term 12”) is a 20-something guy living in Brooklyn
who is in a Skype-reliant relationship with Virginia (Mumblecore regular
Kate Lyn Sheil), who is spending an
academic-related six months abroad in Berlin. When we first see them
together, there is an unforced attraction between the two save for the
fact that she is a face on a laptop screen.
asks Cody to help her choose between two words for a poem she is
writing: fixate vs. obsess. He chooses obsess and thus, her line
becomes, “It’s bodies we obsess upon, but the mind’s the prize.”
is a hint of what is to come both in Cody’s verb preference and
Virginia’s phrase. It is not long before we learn he is having doubts
about whether she is truly thousands of miles away. After all, they met
on an online dating site and have never physically been together.
little Facebook digging, some replays of background noises heard in
Virginia’s supposed European surroundings, a quick check of photos on
Instagram, a glance at Twitter entries—it doesn’t take much for Cody
to go from slightly suspicious to being as obsessed as James Stewart
stalking Kim Novak through the streets of San Francisco.
Cody’s paranoia continues to grow as he hunts down people in the East
Village who might know his long-distance girlfriend, we soon learn that
Virginia isn’t exactly upfront about her commitment to him as she uses
hook-up apps for one-night stands and flirts with almost every male who
crosses her path. Cody even attempts to test Virginia during one of
their daily chats by using German words for certain food dishes.
Explaining why she doesn’t recognize them, she simply says, “I’m not
then something interesting happens as Wigon further pulls back the
curtain on what exactly is going on. At first, Sheil with her cruel
vamp’s eyes possesses the assured aloofness of a femme fatale while
Gallagher naturally exudes the kick-back appeal of a dude next door. Yet our sympathies begin to shift at some point from him to her as Cody
stops at little as he creepily invades the privacy of strangers’ cell
phones and computers, even picking up unwitting women, to find out the
truth about Virginia.
certain point, it’s not about saving a relationship between two people
who supposedly love each other. It is about not wanting to be duped.
Even Cody is confused by his over-reaction but can’t stop himself from
finding out the reality no matter how hurtful it might prove to be.
Wigon probably is too quick to reveal certain key details. I doubt
audiences would have minded if he strung us along for a longer period.
But both Gallagher and Sheil are fully capable of keeping us invested in
their characters, no matter how flawed they might be.
Instead of an explosive climax, “The Heart Machine”
quietly winds down by stripping away all the distracting devices and
allowing both us and the protagonists to feel first-hand the situation
they find themselves in at the end. It is devastating. It is sad. And it
may make you want to reach out and hug someone in the flesh.