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The Heart Machine | Review

Feel It In Your Heart Beat: Wigon’s Debut Explores Jagged, Media-Moderated Romance

The Heart Machine PosterFilm critic Zachary Wigon makes his directorial and screenwriting debut with The Heart Machine, an expansion of his 2012 short, Someone Else’s Heart. A rumination on the difficulties of fostering a romantic connection in the age of digital immediacy, initially Wigon seems to be exploring the complications associated with the dependence on technology in a long distance relationship, how it proves to be a poor or insubstantial substitute for human interaction. But then, quickly, it becomes something else, a case study of mutation in a modern struggle to connect with another person intimately in a world that no longer conditions us to have the patience or mind frame to do so.

Cody (John Gallagher Jr.) and Virginia (Kate Lyn Sheil) are in the middle of a long distance relationship, communicating primarily via Skype. He’s in Brooklyn and she’s in Berlin, and it seems they’ve been communicating exclusively online. Upon Virginia being drowned out by ambulance sirens during their conversation, Cody is inspired to google Germany’s siren pattern later that night, perhaps in an effort to remain mentally in tune with her. But he discovers that the sirens he heard are nothing like what the internet confirms they should sound like. And so, Cody’s sneaking suspicions that Virginia isn’t in Berlin at all, but rather across the river in Manhattan, take control. He records their conversations for review and notices other details, such as the electrical outlet that doesn’t correspond to her locale. Plus, Virginia gets rather unnerved when Cody mentions he saw a girl that looked like her on the subway, or when he tries to show off the German he’s taken it upon himself to learn. Meanwhile, Cody’s suspicions have already been confirmed for us, as we see Virginia going about her business in Manhattan, and often in the arms of other men.

More of an exercise in the complications of modern love than an astute portrait of two people trying to come together, The Heart Machine exudes the robotic connotations of its title, a euphemism for technological mechanisms that have taken the place of real interactions. Both Cody and Virginia are rather undetermined characters, perhaps born out of their own inability to clearly vocalize or attain what it is they’re looking for.

We spend more time with Cody’s perspective, and Gallagher (of Short Term 12) is realistically uncomfortable in his desperate search for information, often leading him into awkward interactions in his junior sleuthing. Having come up through the annals of post-Mumblecore shoestring indies, actress Kate Lyn Sheil is still underrated considering her talent, though this year saw her in other major works like Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip as well as HBO’s “House of Cards.” She’s aggravating as Virginia, yet when given the chance to explain herself, her rationale makes a lot of sense, though it’s not something Cody is able to understand or rationalize. What’s more interesting than the set-up itself is how Cody handles the situation, passively and frantically trying to dig up info rather than confront Virginia, even though their mode of interaction is solely communication based.

Initially, we spy Cody alone in the neon club lights, one of many searching for something more fulfilling. But even as the couple here engages in an online relationship, both parties seek out the realm of the physical, stuck on an ideal but willingly sabotaging the possibility that they’ve already found one but both too afraid to take it to the next logical step.


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), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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