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My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To Review


My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To | 2021 Tribeca Film Festival Review

My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To | 2021 Tribeca Film Festival Review

Only the Lonely: Cuartas Finds No Forgiveness of Blood in Striking Debut

My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To ReviewWith a film which could have easily borrowed the title of the similarly dysfunctional Utah-set The Killing of Two Lovers (2020), Colombian-American director Jonathan Cuartas makes a bid for a contemporary pillar of indie cinema with a family saga cum vampire narrative My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To. Bloodlust and loyalty are the twin diseases tearing a trio of siblings apart in this lowkey tale of Midwestern woe which juxtaposes the passionate zest of its poetic title and characters literally drained of meaning and sustenance.

Avoiding the usual cliches, including the use of an overtly pronounced soundtrack, it plays like the darkness of early Malick for the undead. Strong performances and a significant aura of menace born from the sinewy empathy conjured for its lead protagonist, Cuartas presents a nightmare of the finest ilk, marrying the fuel of folklore to disparate realities.

Dwight (Patrick Fugit) is a hunter of humans in his down and out Midwestern city—but not for his own pleasure. Homing in on lonely vagabonds who won’t be missed, he takes corpses home in the middle of the night so both he and his sister Jessie (Ingrid Sophie Schram) can drain their blood and feed their younger brother Thomas (Owen Campbell), who requires hemoglobin to survive a debilitating condition. However, Dwight is beginning to fantasize about leaving his siblings behind, so distressed he’s become at the endless killing, which Jessie begins to suspect (and conveniently targets a ‘distraction’ inspiring Dwight). Eventually, however, their clandestine nurturing of their enfeebled younger brother spins out of control when Thomas decides he’s had enough of staying awake all alone at night with no one but his siblings to entertain him…

While Let the Right One In (2008) comes to mind, Cuartas is more grounded by emotional and social ills, to a degree where it feels more akin to We Are What We Are (2010) mixed with Fists in the Pocket (1965). Like the couple plagued by vampirism as disease (Vincent Gallo, Beatrice Dalle) in Claire Denis’ beautifully macabre Trouble Every Day (2001), Cuartas finds the soft spot in those lovers left alive, with Patrick Fugit as the central lonely heart sickened by the violence required to keep his brother alive.

As his counterpart, Ingrid Sophie Schram, plays like a beleaguered Sarah Polley, who seems to be living only to serve the dead whilst Dwight sees a potential path to redemption. Eventually, Cuartas brings his characters to the precipice of Wes Craven-level dysfunction, tossing in a glint of additional queerness for Thomas, fascinated by the naïve boy next door. Fugit has never seemed more forlorn than the troubled Dwight, forced to hunt for the lonely souls he’s himself come to mirror. His parallels with a fated prostitute he has come to have feelings for doubles their similar plight of being emotionally consumed by the biological functions they must constantly tend.

Shot by Michael Cuartas, My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To is an exercise in successful visual restraint. But eventually, it’s a devotional story of familial love which crosses over to the inevitable reality that ‘the heart is deceitful above all things.’


Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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