Directed by Jonathan Cuartas
Written by Jonathan Cuartas
Starring Patrick Fugit, Ingrid Sophie Schram, Owen Campbell
Would you kill for the ones you love? That’s the central question in Jonathan Cuartas’ somber take on the vampire mythos. That it’s answered so early on in the film shows just how dark the situation already is as the story unfolds. Taking away the mystique of the vampire legend, My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell it To invites us in to witness a rather drab and dreary life showing a family determined to stay together. Whatever the cost.
In a gut-wrenching performance, Patrick Fugit as Dwight is slowly unraveling as he continues to kill in order to keep his little brother Thomas (Campbell) alive. Picking up unsuspecting vagrants and loners, Dwight and his sister Jessie (Schram) feed the blood of these innocents to Thomas who grows weaker every night. Once dinner is served, the three of them sit quietly on the couch watching trash TV, playing a pretend normal family. Secretly tortured by these unspeakable acts, it’s Dwight that starts to question how much longer they can keep this up before they either get caught or Thomas finally succumbs to his illness. They’re clearly a broken family at this point but they still have great love for each other. As a conflict starts to arise between Dwight and Jessie, there’s a palpable sense of desperation that turns to eventual heartbreak.
Any remnants of romanticism have long since been wiped away by the passage of time. What’s left is the insatiable disease of blood lust that’s finally killing Thomas. Vampirism is a cancer here, not a fantasy. Eternal life is inescapably monotonous and all sense of time begins to get lost. In a telling scene, Thomas learns that they’re actually celebrating Christmas in the month of April. Trapped in the house with no hope of making friends or venturing outside, time is a curse and life is a prison.
Thomas is, alarmingly, the most innocent member of the family. He’s child-like to such a degree that he’s practically helpless without the codependency on his mysterious siblings. Jessie becomes the most evil of the bunch, forcing Dwight to be the brute force hammer that keeps Thomas alive and the family intact. Fugit’s career best performance makes you want to champion Dwight and root for him to find a way out of a trapped, ghoulish existence.
For a story built around frailty, there are several knockout fight scenes that explode with physicality. They’re bloody and filled with fire and they show just how fine the line between life and death truly is. The emotional terror and physical drain exerted in order to actually kill someone when things don’t go as planned is visceral. Those shocking bursts shatter the quieter moments of real affection between them as it quickly becomes obvious that life can’t go on this way. The more death they deal with collectively, the more they release that they all have no life.
The way director Jonathan Cuartas has deconstructed the vampire film here feels different than classics like Let the Right One In or Abel Ferrara’s heroin parable The Addiction. The center of My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell it To isn’t actually the creature itself. If anything, Dwight is a brotherly version of Renfield and he’s the real pulse of this film. With a title that sounds like lyrics to a sad song by The Cure, there’s a surprising feeling of triumph in the final moments.
Taking away the mystique of the vampire legend, My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell it To invites us in to witness a rather drab and dreary life showing a family determined to stay together. Whatever the cost.