My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To is the first feature film by writer/director Jonathan Cuartas and his brother, cinematographer Michael Cuartas.
Blending themes of confinement, loneliness, family and morality, Jonathan Cuartas’ directorial debut My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To is a beautifully orchestrated slow burn that pushes the boundaries of horror and drama, creating something entirely new. Underneath this twisted, bloodstained story, Jonathan and Michael Cuartas take viewers into the painful reality of a tight-knit familial space and the difficult obligations that come with it.
The film follows siblings Dwight (Patrick Fugit) and Jessie (Ingrid Sophie Schram) as they push their personal limits in order to take care of their younger brother Thomas (Owen Campbell), who survives on human blood. Preying mostly on homeless people, immigrants and sex workers, Dwight and Jessie must continue to bring home bodies, draining their blood, to fulfill Thomas’ unquenchable thirst. Despite this finely-tuned system of cruising the night for Thomas’ next meal, Thomas desperately longs to venture out of their home and make friends.
Adapted from Jonathan Cuartas’ short film Kuru, My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To made its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2020, receiving a Special Jury Mention. More than a year later it feels just powerful, especially while the COVID-19 pandemic is still prevalent. With slow, steady and deliberate camera work to accompany the film’s eerie soundtrack, the Cuartas brothers craft the perfect storm of tension and paranoia that is only exacerbated in the restrictive home environment. This fixed location obscures time much like the pandemic “time warp,” which blurred many people’s perception of time. However, instead of a global pandemic, it is Thomas’ condition that requires him to live in the gloomy confines of his family’s home where time is constructed—and enforced—by Jessie. Here, isolated from the townspeople, Thomas lives on a nocturnal schedule and celebrates Christmas every two months. Although Thomas is aware of his nocturnal life, which Jessie frequently reminds him of, daylight is virtually nonexistent in their house due to boarded up windows, further altering the characters’—as well as viewers’—sense of time.
Much of the film’s elements create a foreboding reminiscent of Karyn Kusama’s 2015 film The Invitation, but what truly distinguishes it is the complex humanness of Jonathan Cuartas’ characters. Dwight, Jessie and Thomas each play a role in the family, creating a familiar dynamic that allows viewers to better understand and feel for each. By doing this, the film validates the difficulties that the character faces: Dwight’s personal conflict with abducting and killing people, Jessie’s need to care for and protect her younger brother and Thomas’ desire to have friends, which ultimately creates a common ground for the audience. So, even though everyone in this family has played a part in the process of getting blood for Thomas, this dynamic, which feels realistically messy and complicated, leaves no room for viewers to hate anyone. Essentially, there is no real antagonist because each of the siblings commit some form violence and are further implicated by their complicitness. They’re simultaneously hateable and lovable because their actions stem from love, and that’s the beauty of the film.
One of the greatest aspects of My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To is its characters, but there are a few moments that leave viewers with more questions than answers. While it would be nice to further explore their relationships, specifically Thomas’ sickness and exactly how they reached this point in their lives, Cuartas’ manages to nicely expand upon his short film, providing more intimate moments between his characters. Fugit, Schram and Campbell further strengthen the characters, each adding their own flare that makes them more human and inspires a collective sense of empathy from viewers.
Empathy is what drives the story. Containing carefully constructed layers of emotional depth, My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To is a moving cinematic experience that refuses to deliver viewers a happy resolution and instead allows its conclusion to end more naturally.
Featuring a powerful story and cast, My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To is a nuanced, gory slow burn that captures the unspoken difficulties of family life. With a beautiful command of visuals and sound, the Cuartas brothers represent a new wave of filmmaking, and they’re just getting started. My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To is an elevated genre that paves the way for a new generation of vampires that are just as complex as humans.
My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To will be released on Digital Download on 28 June.
Words by Brianna Silva
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