Yikes! Whether you consider it to be a horror film or not, writer/director Jonathan Cuartas brings a feral, ragged edge to this bleak, compelling domestic drama, so much so that a little warning is required. My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To isn’t particularly gory or violent for the horror genre, it’s a particularly intense and upsetting film by dint of theme and content; forget about exploding heads and ghosties, it’s a far classier piece of work than that, but it’s still one freaky trip.
Landing somewhere between Ari Aster and Brandon Cronenberg, Cuartas sets out his stall in fifty shades of dread. We’re looking at some kind of modern, nuclear family; Dwight (Patrick Fugit) and Jessie (Ingrid Sophie Schram) are brother and sister, and have responsibility for sibling Thomas (Owen Campbell). For reasons not fully explained, Thomas needs blood, and the older brother and sister supply it by locating and murdering those who they deem sufficiently remote from society that their presence will not be missed. Despite their valiant efforts, Thomas isn’t happy and wants to make friends of his own, triggering a domino run of unhappy events that lead to a stark conclusion best kept under wraps for now.
My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To could be classified as a vampire story a la George A. Romero’s Martin, or could be compared to the Argentinian horror We Are What We Are. But Cuartas brings something fresh to the party via the intensity of his approach, with rigid, formal framing and remarkable performances from the cast. Campbell has an unearthly quality that’s hard to pin down, but Fugit really is a revelation. If you recognise the name, it’s from his starring role in Almost Famous, but Fugit is clearly not a man to rest on past laurels; he’s utterly compelling as an unlikely patriarch, and you feel there are no depths that Dwight won’t go to in order to preserve his family.
In another, alternate universe, I’d be stumbling out into the sunlight of the Tribeca film festival weak at the knees from this gruelling, exhausting, absorbing film; held over from the 2020 programme, the film drops onto streaming next week and is recommended for those seeking the cutting edge in out-there cinema. Harrowing, beautiful and curious, Cuartas’ film offers up a simple story that carries considerable metaphorical heft. Like Dwight, we’re seeking to protect those we love at the expense of those we don’t, and that simple equation fuels the nightmare scenario described here.
My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To is out on Digital Download in the US and via Lightbulb Film Distibution in the UK from June 28th 2021.
Thanks to Sapkar Pr and Tribeca Film Festival for advanced access to this film.