The bond of a family is something that is impossible to understand from a certain perspective. You can have makeshift families, like groups of people living together in college, but they’re not true family. Family related by blood has this weird bond that you share a similar genetic history with each other and can trace your roots back to the same place. It’s neat in a way, but that’s not the only way families can be defined by blood. Yes, the siblings in My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To are blood relatives, but they’re also serial murderers on the hunt for literal blood.
Death abounds in My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To and the reason behind such bloodshed is complex, to say the least. It may involve vampirism, it may just be to vent out frustrations, or to find companionship. Regardless of the reason, it doesn’t change the fact that this is a dour film, one that gives us an unsettling insight into this deeply disturbed family.
My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To
Director: Jonathan Cuartas
Release: June 12, 2021 (Tribeca Film Festival)
Dwight (Patrick Fugit) and Jessie (Ingrid Sophie Schram) are serial killers who kill homeless people and prostitutes. On what seems like a nightly basis, the two siblings will go out and find some poor, unsuspecting person to kill and drain their blood. The purpose? Their younger brother Thomas (Owen Campbell) is a vampire who must continuously drink blood or risk dying. While Jessie is all too eager to help protect her feeble younger brother, Dwight starts to have desires to break away from his family and try to live a normal life, despite how his absence will almost certainly result in Thomas’ death.
My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To doesn’t shy away or try to gloss over what this family is doing. The movie, from the very first scene, establishes that these three siblings are all varying degrees of messed up and most of them are aware of it. The main metaphor on display here is the importance of family and how far we’re willing to go to protect those we’re related to. I wouldn’t go so far as to say “love” since there are plenty of times that the members here seem to hate each other, but they’re willing to put the needs of the one over the needs of the many because of their relationship.
You almost grow to pity each of the characters in their own unique way, most notably the vampiric Thomas. Instead of being a creature of evil or some kind of monster, Thomas is a frail teenager who just wants to go outside more than anything else. He’s so reclusive from others that he doesn’t even know that other people drinking blood is abnormal. The only ways he has to pass the time is for him to feed his bugs, sleep, do karaoke, or play a game where people have to guess what year a piece of music he plays was created in. It’s sad, but he’s at least aware of how sad his existence is.
Dwight is the only one who at least somewhat acknowledges the depravities they commit on a daily basis, yet he’s complicit in everything they do. He’s the one who finds people to kill and sells their belongings for cash. He constantly bemoans about how he wants to be free and break away from his path in life but never has the courage to do so. Like Thomas, he’s a pathetic character but instead of eliciting pity in the viewer, you feel more disdain at how he lacks any kind of a spine or motivation to try and do anything about Thomas or for him to seek a better, not murder filled, life.
I’m not usually someone who likes to point out plot holes in a review. Personally, I tend to think of plot holes more as unexplored avenues of storytelling that can have the viewer expand the world of whatever they’re experiencing. But My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To has some pretty glaring plot holes that kept me from fully engaging with it. When the cast is faced with some difficult and momentous decision, the choice they make is probably the most illogical of them all. Yes, they’re under duress, but the decisions they make are either short-sighted at best or idiotic at worst.
Take Jessie, who is easily the most reprehensible character in the story, framed as being the ringleader of this entire operation. While working as a waitress during the day, two customers make offhanded remarks at her, like telling her that she would be prettier if she just smiles. It’s a rude thing to say of course, but her reaction to it only just raises alarms that this woman would have been caught almost in an instant if she was truly the one who organized this bloodletting exercise.
The dour tone is relentless as well, never offering up a single bit of levity. I know that not every movie needs to be all sunshine and rainbows, but even the moments of optimism here feel bleak and only to set up despair. My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To is a complete dirge, slowly and painfully beating the audience down until the very end. I do like the ultimate conclusion of the film and the symbolism associated with it, as well as its use of lighting throughout to show just how dark and sinister their house is compared to everywhere else. It’s a unique spin on the vampire lore, but it’s one that gets too hung up with just how oppressive it can be.
See, I like what the movie is trying to do. I like horror movies that have a deeper meaning to them besides let’s just kill a whole bunch of people in gruesome ways. Those are fun, but sometimes you want a horror movie that has something to say, and My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To has something to say. It’s not done in the most consistently enjoyable way, not by a long shot, but I have to admire the film for trying to be about something and have it star three very broken people in different stages of despair. It’s a bold idea, but one that doesn’t fully pay off.