As more tools, apps, devices, and iProducts emerge to ease the struggles of modern existence, the manifestations of each invention come with unforeseen consequences. And as such, as the digital age progresses, the complexities of intimacy, relationships, and sex are increased. While the stigma of online dating has largely vanished, the prevalence of hook-up driven culture via apps like Blendr, Grindr, and such reveal that, as technology evolves, options we didn’t even realize we wanted become available. Who knows what tomorrow will bring? New sexual possibilities could lie at the click of a button, and disconnecting anxieties will appear as the endlessly changing terrain continues to shift. And so, “The Heart Machine,” written and directed by filmmaker Zachary Wigon, explores these concepts while examining the byproduct of the distance, estrangement, and alienation these applications for connection produce.
Beginning in medias res, John Gallagher Jr. (HBO‘s “The Newsroom,” “Short Term 12“) stars as Cody, a 20-something New Yorker already in a committed relationship with Virginia (Kate Lyn Sheil of “Sun Don’t Shine” and season 2 of “House Of Cards“). She currently resides in Berlin, he in Manhattan, and it turns out they connected online through a Match.com-like service and have actually never physically met. And so their modern-day, distanced relationship becomes filtered through Skype and occasional phone conversations, with the on-the-horizon reward being Virginia’s return to New York in just a few short months. Theirs is a short-term sacrifice as an investment in the future, but uncertainty lies at its core.
Cody is suspicious. An ambulance siren coming from Virginia’s end of the world sounds questionably un-European, some of her story doesn’t add up, and she may not actually be as many thousands of miles away as she claims. Now on guard for clues, Cody’s apprehension soon turns into an unhealthy obsession that finds him using Facebook, Instagram, and other social media tools to cross and break many boundaries of privacy and discretion. As he grows more and more irrational, the strain takes its toll on their relationship, which eventually comes to a head.
Meanwhile, in her end of the universe, Virginia uses Blendr to hook up with guys, despite professing her love to Cody. As disaffected as her actions are, she appears to be the more committed and less distrustful of the two. An intriguing look at the growing unease of relationships through the framework of modern technology, the isolation inherent in urban living, and perhaps most insightfully, the power and control technology allows us to have over relationships, “The Heart Machine” is a compelling examination of these concepts, but never quite hits the bull’s eye considering its meaty subject.
Perhaps a critical error is the non-linear structure the narrative employs. A more straightforward approach might have served the material and the audience a little better by keeping them in the dark along with Cody (without it suspense is killed off early). Suspension of disbelief issues occur throughout too—that a couple who have never met would be in a serious, committed relationship for six months does often strain plausibility, even though yes, it happens all the time (buying it wholeheartedly in this milieu is more the issue).
More a mystery of the heart than a whodunit of locale (the answer to which becomes obvious within the first quarter of the movie), in this sense, “The Heart Machine” becomes frustrating as the answers eventually given are unsatisfyingly vague (and at the same time expositionally overt), not hitting the mark of the mysterious elusiveness usually intrinsic in the dynamics of men and women and their various needs and desires (oranges and apples can be deeply reductive, but as a recent point of comparison, Spike Jonze’s “Her” says more about the same topic, and is much more emotionally resonant to boot).
Yet, for all these myriad little issues, “The Heart Machine” still remains largely absorbing and mostly engaging. Gallagher Jr. and Sheil certainly don’t hurt, and their credible performances buoy elements of the plot that sometimes feel strained. Even when Cody’s increasingly desperate actions don’t parse, or veer into near unbelievable territory, you still empathize with the character. Already somewhat beautifully aloof, Kate Lyn Sheil might have been the best option alive to play the detached and well-meaning female confused and unsure of what she wants out of love. Where “The Heart Machine” feels most thoughtful is in its observations of damaged people hiding behind screens as a layer of emotional protection. Virginia clearly has issues she unknowingly arbitrates through the usage of her various digital tools. And yet, as interesting as all these notions are, one can’t help but wish the movie hit a more emotionally rich nerve.
The feature-length narrative debut of this promising filmmaker (also a film critic who has written for the Village Voice, Slant, Filmmaker; and his short “Someone Else’s Heart” a won a Hammer To Nail contest last year), Wigon has created a thought-provoking debut, even if it doesn’t always hit its intended marks. But given the challenging limitations of his narrative—two leads that have almost no onscreen time together other than appearing on one another’s laptops—it will be interesting to see what he decides to tackle next.
As a modern-day romance, the movie itself is too formally detached to actually devastate emotionally, but as an examination of ideas, it does have value. Perhaps the irony, and most perceptive observation in “The Heart Machine,” is that as technology advances to make relationships easier for mankind, applications for connection often have a much more complicating effect once in the hands of three-dimensional human beings. [B]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2014 SXSW Film Festival.