Movies: My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To (2020)

Initially slated to premiere at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival (which was cancelled due to COVID), Jonathan Cuartas’s feature-length debut My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To was instead picked up by Dark Sky Films, and in the autumn of that year appeared on several streaming services simultaneously, including Shudder, Amazon Prime, and Tubi. I can’t remember why the film caught my eye in particular as I was scrolling through the newer releases, other than it having a memorable title and numerous four- and five-star reviews. I deliberately read nothing about it before watching, and I would recommend going into it the same way, but because this movie is impossible to talk about without revealing some aspects of the plot, be warned that this discussion will necessarily contain some mild spoilers.

The opening scene of the film gets the audience intrigued right away. A homeless man is rummaging through a dumpster, looking for anything worth having, when a bearded man driving a pickup pulls up next to him. The driver of the truck—whose name, we later discover, is Dwight (played by Patrick Fugit)—offers the homeless man some food and a ride to a shelter where he can sleep for the night. But when the truck pulls up in front of the “shelter,” which looks suspiciously like a somewhat shabby suburban house, Dwight clobbers the homeless man on the back of the head with a baseball bat. In the kitchen of the house, Dwight places the limp victim on the table while a spectrally thin young woman saws at the man’s throat, catching his blood in a bucket.

What we subsequently learn is that Dwight and the woman—his sister Jessie, played by Ingrid Sophie Schram—feel obligated to regularly kill society’s castoffs in order to obtain blood to feed to their gentle and childlike younger brother, Thomas (Owen Campbell). In that sense, My Heart Can’t Beat… is essentially a vampire film, though the v-word is never spoken, and most aspects of Thomas’s malady are left ambiguous. This is a vampire film more akin to Let the Right One In or George Romero’s Martin than something more classical like Dracula, or flashy and action-oriented like Blade. In many ways, it’s a low-key, character-based horror in which vampirism is a stand-in for any long-term illness, and it examines the consequences of the sacrifice that the ill person’s loved ones make on their behalf.

The movie does not specify how long Thomas has been this way, or what happened to the three siblings’ parents. Jessie, who works as a waitress by day to make ends meet, runs the household with a steely resolve, homeschooling Thomas (who appears to be in his late teens or early twenties, though his behavior makes him seem much younger, implying that he has been sheltered for quite a long time) and never allowing him to go outdoors. Dwight is always the one tasked with bringing in the victims, but this responsibility is beginning to wear on him. His only outlet appears to be his occasional visits with sex worker Pam (Katie Preston), who he confides in and fantasizes about running away to Miami with.

The movie is more of a slow-burn family drama than an outright horror film, but its whole vibe is nonetheless unsettlingly grim, bleak, and tense. The viewer knows that this situation in which the siblings find themselves can’t be sustained—despite Dwight and Jessie’s efforts, Thomas might be dying anyway, and of course there is always the very real possibility that they will be caught—but all of them feel trapped by duty. Dwight is finding it harder and harder to kill to keep his brother alive, but at the same time, he cannot fathom simply letting the sweet-natured and presumably blameless Thomas die. Jessie is colder-blooded about the murders, but it seems that she has forced herself into that mindset because she feels that her brother’s welfare is her responsibility, and she will do anything to honor that. She has even tried to keep Thomas entertained with musical games, and celebrating Christmas once a month.

Thomas himself seems­—at least initially­—to have been kept largely in the dark about what his siblings do for him, but he is also feeling the strain in his own way. Cooped up in the dour house with only his brother and sister for company, Thomas longs for a friend his own age, or even just a nice drive out in the country with his family. Jessie, though, fearful of what will happen to him, refuses to allow him any life at all in order to protect him from harm. Though I won’t spoil any more than that, I will say that a series of events occur that bring all of these simmering tensions into sharper focus and lead the family toward an inevitable and somewhat devastating conclusion.

If you’re looking for a more traditional vampire movie, you might want to look elsewhere, but if you’re a fan of more understated genre films that are more interested in exploring the emotional and psychological effects of vampirism on a family dynamic, then My Heart Can’t Beat… is definitely one to watch. It leaves a lot of questions unanswered, but anyone who has felt the guilt and turmoil associated with sacrificing one’s own life to care for a loved one who can’t care for themselves will likely find it a particularly poignant experience.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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