My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To

MovieSteve rating:
Your star rating:

Talking of movies that got lost down the back of the Covid sofa, how about My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To, the debut feature by Jonathan Cuartas and as good a modern take on the vampire genre as you’ll see.

A homeless man is picked up by a guy with a beard. Where are we going, says the vagrant. To a hostel, says the bearded guy. This isn’t a hostel, says the homeless guy when they pull up outside a family home. Next second he’s been clubbed about the head by a baseball bat he (ironically) only minutes before had been pulling out of a dumpster bin. Another few seconds later and he’s in the kitchen, where a young woman helps the bearded guy slit his throat. And just a few seconds after that the dead man’s blood is being fed to a sickly teenager in bed.

This is how these people live. There is no lore, no backstory, no explicatory anything in this movie centred on a brother and sister who do whatever’s necessary to keep their “sick” younger brother alive. We have no idea if the younger brother is a thousand-year-old vampire or just a kid with a weird condition. Nothing is explained except what we can read on the faces of all three.

Patrick Fugit plays the bearded Dwight, the one who does most of the killing. Ingrid Sophie Schram is sister Jessie, the driving force in this family unit. Owen Campbell plays the frail and pasty Thomas, a vampire (if that’s what he is) who comes across as a straight hybrid of Dracula and his insane assistant Renfield – this is a kid who drinks blood, cannot stand the light and sleeps during the day but also whimpers pathetically a fair bit and collects bugs in a jar, much as Renfield did in Bram Stoker’s original story.

As we join this happy family, Dwight is at the point where he’s wondering how much longer he can keep doing this. He’s formed a relationship of sorts with Pam (Katie Preston), a prostitute he meets once a week for sex, then pays a bit more just to talk. Perhaps, he wonders, they could run away together. For her part, badass Jessie, who works at a diner, is beginning to suspect that Dwight has lost his enthusiasm for the job of keeping their brother alive. Thomas, meanwhile, is a faint photocopy of a normal teenage lad – in bed most of the time, floppy, useless and mopey. A crisis is coming, and that’s what Cuartas’s film is about.

Dwight, Jessie and Thomas on the sofa together
Domestic harmony: Dwight, Jessie and Thomas

If you’ve seen the original Let the Right One In, there’s something of that muted vibe in My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To (the titles faintly echo each other too). Jonathan Cuartas’s older brother Michael is the cinematographer and he boldly (almost rashly) underlights everything for maximum murk, while brother Jonathan suggests queasiness by setting up scenes so they’re just slightly off-centre. Andrew Rease Shaw’s almost-subliminal soundtrack of sustained drones builds on that visual mood and the hushed sound design (not sure who this is by, but it’s good) helps whip everything into something dark and unsettling and yet also weirdly domestic.

The three key actors – everyone else in it is a victim or potential victim – don’t resemble each other but they do manage to suggest, via a shared physical language of movement and gesture, that they are family.

The sparse but sufficient story, very good technicals and nicely attuned acting to one side, it’s the family dynamic that gives this vampire story its bite (come on, it’s obligatory), and a psychological heft that’s often missing from these things.

All shot in 20 days, in a house, mostly, with few special effects to speak of. It’s a gripping, fascinating tale and deservedly picked up a rake of awards at various festivals held (in various ways) in 2020. Imagine what it would have done without Covid.

My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

© Steve Morrissey 2024

Leave a Comment