October 8th, 2021
MOVIE: MY HEART CAN’T BEAT UNLESS YOU TELL IT TO
STARRING: PATRICK FUGIT, INGRID SOPHIE SCHRAM, OWEN CAMPBELL
DIRECTED BY: JONATHAN CUARTAS
AMovieGuy.com’s RATING: 3 STARS (Out of 4)
I often mention Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive when I’m talking about vampire movies. And once again, after watching My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To, I am thinking about Jarmusch’s excellent way of making Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston the vampires they were born to play. Jonathan Cuartas’ film is not the same kind of movie, arguably a bit less in style, but more in dramatics, where it involves a brother and sister dealing with the task of taking care of their vampire brother. On one level, My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To is high grade independent horror filmmaking. On the other level, it’s just a conflicting situation where it asks the audience the question of how far they would go to protect the people they love, no matter how much bloodshed it costs. At the end it amounts to a vampire movie made with precision, compact skills, and a moral conflict that will have audiences asking themselves how they would handle having a vampire for a family member.
The opening sequence involves us meeting Dwight (Patrick Fugit), sitting in his van, noticing a homeless person standing by a dumpster, and then driving up to give him some food. What happens next is Dwight hits the homeless man over the head and throws him into the van. He’s taken home unconscious, and with the help of his sister Jessie (Ingrid Sophie Schram) the body is moved, killed, and prepared for their brother Thomas (Owen Campbell) to suck dry. One aspect that you may instantly ask yourself, which is why wouldn’t Dwight and Jessie just hit up blood banks or other ways to provide blood, a question writer Cuartas isn’t too interested in digging into. The fact is, this is a family that finds people that wouldn’t be missed, and makes them the source of life to keep their brother’s hunger satiated. The results are messy, conflicting, and hitting the nail on the head about how you can’t pick who you get as a family.
Minor detail issues aside, it’s hard not to be incredibly impressed by the pacing, settings, and sound design used by Cuartas. The home of this family is often lit by yellow shaded lamps, where the kitchen has become a prep area, and the basement has become Thomas’ location to feast. The other excellent trick is how the sound design is used to create the unseen illusion of flesh being cut, which sent chills down my spine, while the moral weight of the situation continues to weigh heavily on Dwight and Jessie. It leads to arguments at night, the constant pressure to provide a body, the constant trauma it brings on Dwight who is tasked with doing the killings, and Jessie who keeps the pressure on behind the scenes to keep the scenario alive. It’s the second act where Jessie offers a local waitress and sex worker as the next target, a woman that Dwight genuinely likes, pitting the family between his personal life.
I brought up Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive because it struggles with the same moral quandary, but it’s more self sufficient, where the vampires go out and find their own blood. It’s mainly why the two films would make a good double feature, where My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To is a starting point for a teenage vampire, needing the assistance of his family to keep him alive, and Only Lovers Left Alive is what happens if they survive it all. The trio of performances from Fugit, Schram, and Campbell deliver, making the perfect mix of human anxiety, familial strife, and the terrors of what vampires are capable of.
What ultimately left me impressed by My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To was the direction from Jonathan Cuartas, working within his budget, creating scenarios where Dwight’s search for people to turn into vampire food is both haunting and tragic. It’s a fantastic display of independent filmmaking and obviously the kind of movie where you let some of the minor mistakes go by the wayside. My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To may be a mouthful of a title, but it bites into more than enough that you can chew.
MY HEART CAN’T BEAT UNLESS YOU TELL IT TO IS NOW AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY FROM DARK SKY FILMS
Written by: Leo Brady