Vampirism, as with many staples of the horror genre, has been used throughout the decades as a metaphor for a great number of things. We’ve seen it represent romance and seduction (any Dracula movie), the pains of childhood isolation (Let The Right One In), and the struggle of addiction (The Addiction, aptly titled). It’s tough to imagine how someone could come up with a brand new spin on a subject matter that has been around for hundreds of years across many different mediums, and yet My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To genuinely feels like a fresh take on the plight of the vampire.
Without directly stating the “V” word, writer/director Jonathan Cuartas’ film centers on a small, tight-knit family dealing with the weight of an impossible situation. In a group of three siblings, the youngest, Thomas (Owen Campbell), needs to consume the blood of others in order to survive. This leads to older brother Dwight (Patrick Fugit) lurking the streets at night in order to find those he can kill in order to feed his family. He takes no pleasure in this act, but it’s what he must do, while sister Jessie (Ingrid Sophie Schram) works an unfulfilling job at a restaurant and then waits at home to help prepare Thomas’ next meal.
Dwight’s victims are those deemed most expendable by society – the sex workers and undocumented outcasts living on the fringe who have no one to protect them and won’t generate public attention if thye suddenly go missing. Cuartas expertly, subtly uses the act to comment on the people we cast aside, and to quietly observe the privilege that this family wields over those they hunt in order to maintain this fragile existence they’ve established.
That idea of who is protected in this world gets laced throughout My Heart Can’t Beat, perhaps never more so than with Thomas himself. Rather than depicting Thomas as a bloodthirsty, super-powered predator, as vampires often are, this boy is a frail being, with long, stringy hair, a pale complexion, and a body that looks like it can’t stand up on its own. He appears in direct opposition to those god-like beings, and relies solely on Dwight and Jessie to keep him alive.
The depiction of Thomas in the film more closely represents that of someone with a chronic illness – the inability to get out of the home, or even out of bed, leading to a reliance on loved ones to care for him even at the cost of their own mental health at times. Dwight is worn down by the toll of taking these lives, while Jessie internalizes all of her complex emotions and lashes out with a need to control the situation. They are keeping Thomas alive, but at what cost? What kind of a life is this for any of them to be leading?
Just as importantly, has anyone even asked Thomas if this is what he wants? Cuartas examines the many angles of the internal strife that all three members of the family are experiencing, including Thomas himself and the guilt and agony of his existence where he is staying alive seemingly just to be alive, with no friends and very little joy to be found – merely just another day of knowing that in order for him to stay alive, another person must die to feed him.
The oppressive, boxed cinematography gives the audience that claustrophobic feeling of the walls closing in on this trio as the burden of living this life suffocates them more and more by the day, with the scenes inside their home in particular having a palpable discomfort to them. They can’t keep this up forever, but what would it mean for Thomas if they didn’t feed him any longer? Would it mean they didn’t love him? Like so many, they’ve always believed that they would do anything for their family, but perhaps they have realized that there is a line that must be drawn.
My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To offers no easy answers to the questions that come with taking care of a loved one when they are in a state of chronic illness like Thomas is, and that’s appropriate for a situation that in the real world also has no clear solution. All Cuartas can do is present the circumstances to the audience, and allow viewers to take in these ideas, ask themselves these questions, or relate them to their own lives if they have experiences similar to what these characters are going through.
Finding this route through an age-old subject matter is a fascinating lens into the ways in which storytelling can constantly reinvent itself and offer up new takes on a genre that felt like the well had been worn dry. Cuartas has delivered a fully-accomplished debut that is not only among the best debuts we’ve seen in years, but a truly lasting experience that reverberates in your subconscious for days after viewing. With phenomenal performances from its three key actors, this examination of the cost of family, and the true weight of blood in all forms, is a remarkable calling card for a new filmmaker who will be one to keep a close eye on moving forward.
My Heart Can’t Beat Unless It To is currently playing in select theaters and on VOD