Quiet horror is not a particularly marketable asset to a major studio, and it’s because of that that we just don’t see much of it in the immediate landscape of the genre today. Audiences demand bigger thrills, louder jump-scares, and a grander scale as a whole. While The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It was great in IMAX (even if the film itself wasn’t), there’s something so haunting about sharing a quiet, introspective horror film with a small crowd, or maybe even no crowd at all. Sometimes being curled up in my bed in complete darkness with only me and the television makes for an ideal viewing experience, and while I wish I could be at the Tribeca premiere of this, something about My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To’s atmosphere speaks wonders to the deep, untouched experience of watching a film without an audience around you expecting something completely different…even if that audience is just my sleeping dog next to me.
In the suburbs of Salt Lake City, two siblings, Dwight (Patrick Fugit) and Jessie (Ingrid Sophie Schram), are taking full-time care of their younger brother, Thomas (Owen Campbell), who suffers from a form of vampirism, requiring blood to survive, and needing to avoid the sunlight. To provide Thomas with the blood, Dwight and Jessie kidnap and kill wayward drifters throughout the area, but as the crimes weigh heavy on Dwight’s conscience, and Thomas’s yearning to explore the outside world increases, they soon realize this method of living can only last so long before disaster strikes.
Aesthetically speaking, the first thought that popped into my head was: “This looks like Kelly Reichardt directed Hereditary,” which was a consistent thought to the film’s end. It’s not simply because the film is shot in 1.33:1 that the Reichardt comparisons come into play, though. The results of writer/cinematographer/director Jonathan Cuartas’s gentle touch to the film are that even in its more brutal moments of violence, there is an emotional intimacy and guilt that pervades most characters’ actions, and the lack of this intimacy and guilt in other characters’ actions only add to the polarity of motives and drive to keep up an unsustainable life.
Fugit and Schram are absolutely fabulous together as the killer siblings looking to keep their sick brother alive. Fugit, a staple of character actor for a number of filmmakers, really gets the chance to shine in something much more understated and tragic here. He’s a tortured man who is forced to do things he doesn’t want to do for the sake of his brother, and in fear of his sister questioning his allegiance to family. Fugit turns My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To into a strange coming-of-age tale of a man forced to grow past his own sheltering to come to terms with the atrocities he’s committed in the name of familial love.
Despite itself and its truly horrifying nature, it’s hard for me to call My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To a straight-up horror film in the traditional sense. Similar to films like Relic, there’s a (much more dichotomous) touching element of what lengths desperate people will go to in order to protect their loved ones, and the realization of the destruction they caused to save one person. It would be easy for Cuartas to make Dwight and Jessie unredeemable murderers with no conscience or without any reservations about the deeds they commit, but there’s a particularly strange sense of relatability I found in both characters that made me feel profoundly uncomfortable. I didn’t want to see myself in these people, but there’s an undeniably emotional center to this whole film that made me abandon my morals when placed in the same situation. Perhaps that provided me with more pure horror than any of the film’s more horrifying moments of violence.
It’s that emotional center that provides My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To with the lasting impression as a film. It’s not a frightening film as much as it is a terrifying reflection on how we view the suffering of other people as a remedy for the suffering of ourselves or loved ones. It presents a moral dilemma that I’m not sure I fully have the answer to, because I can’t promise how I would approach the same situation were I to find myself in it. It makes me entirely uneasy, but if that’s not what a good drama does, I don’t know what it does. This film presents a ton of questions without many answers, because they’re answers that one family could not possibly figure out on their own accord. It’s everything you don’t expect a horror film to be, and even in its dryer, less astutely paced moments, there’s an incredibly organic, almost uncanny feeling to the film’s suburban hellscape that creates an eerie reflection on the lives of unexceptional people with an exceptional problem on their hands. It’s tragically haunting.
In select theaters and on VOD June 25th, 2021.
For more information, head to the official My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.