The Heart Machine – Day Nine at the Sarasota Film Festival

[Some SPOILERS AHEAD] The Heart Machine is fresh off its world Premier at SXSW a few weeks ago. The film is so new, that at this time, there’s not even a film poster available, so pardon the make-do image on the right used for this piece. [Edit: October 15th, 2014 – Poster and updated trailer have been added to this review]

The Heart Machine isn’t about new medical machinery or bio-tech. Rather it is about love in the digital age. These days, one asks for a way in by saying, What’s your Skype address?

It’s still the same as can I call you, only the hardware/software is different. The Heart Machine was screened at the Sarasota Film Festival today, and yours truly was in attendance. Starring John Gallagher Jr (The Newsroom) and Kate Lyn Sheil (House of Cards), this film wasn’t the comedy, the romance, or even the rom-com I was expecting and hoping for.

Rather it is a look at one-night stands, e-stalking, angst, skypurbation, and hovering over all of it, is the hollowness and fleeting (over just after it begins) of today’s relationships. The onscreen version is the relationship began and end as easily as opening a wrapped bit of chocolate then tossing the wrapper into the trash bin.

Gallagher plays Cody. He lives in the Bushwick area of Brooklyn. Sheil plays Virginia Walker. They met on line and communicate via Skype. For some reason (she’s somewhat insecure which may be the case but isn’t clearly apparent), Virginia tells Cody that she lives in Berlin, Germany. We soon learn otherwise, as she really lives on Manhattan’s Lower Eastside. Or as she describes it – ‘really way east of the Lower Eastside’.

But as these things go, the internet allows for an intimacy that an old-fangled telephone does not. So things progress. But Gallagher’s Cody is not just a guy looking for love. We soon find out that he may be paranoid and that he’s definitely obsessional. He takes screen captures of the Skype talks, and then starts blowing up the backgrounds in these images – is he just inquisitive, or what exactly does he expect to see? What is he looking for why is he looking so far beneath the surface are the questions that will come to you.

Then he starts listening to background sounds on the recorded Skype calls. He looks at the audio graphics of dog’s barking, and what he calls German sirens. This is not good. We begin to be concerned for Virginia. Because we know she’s in the city.

We are introduced to the term Blendr which is a geo-social networking app. People use this to meet and find people in real-time for an immediate connection. Craig’s List is also mentioned. Now watching people on the phone or on a computer is not going to make for scintillating cinema, but Wigon has done a pretty nice job of editing these scenes by a pretty good blending of real images of the people, and their Skype images, along with both real in personal audio along with the internet delivered audio we hear issuing from the computers.

Cody starts to track her down. He uses clues in what she has told him about like a certain coffee barista guy she slept with. We are now in a full alert mode. Cody is really creepy. The deal is sealed for us when he reveals a pinboard with images, notes, graphs, maps etc hidden in the deep recesses of his closet – and all of it about Virginia.

By now, I am disgusted by him. And afraid for her. This has Looking for Mr. Goodbar written all over it. But that’s enough of setting the film up.

I think both Gallagher and Sheil performed wonderfully. I am not so enamored of the story, nor of Director Zachary Wigon’s stylistic choices. He’s a 2008 graduate of the NYU Film School, and he’s just 28 years old.

He opens (pre-credits) with a dark screen that gradually allows in more light, a bit at a time, but to us, it seems strobotic. And of course it is, as we see that is a dance club on the Lower Eastside. But for a pre-credit start to a film, it went on far too long, especially so because we’ve not met any of the characters yet. Wigon also never met a room nor an apartment that he didn’t think needed a slow pan across the room. I think I counted five of these. And in each case, the owner of the flat was somewhere else – like the bathroom, or changing clothes, making drinks etc. Wouldn’t we prefer to see more of the person rather than Cody eyeballing and absorbing and mentally recording every detail of the room.

However, aside from Virginia and Cody, no other character has any depth, or development. They are simply just sex partners. And for Cody and Virginia, well one’s a liar, and the other’s a creep.

Wigon is not really passing judgement on either of them. It is more like he’s telling the story of two flawed people with the subtext that they are us. It is a scary story in one way, and in another way he’s asking us to reflect on the social scene of today’s younger people. I’d like to use the terms cautionary tale to describe the film, but that would intrinsically mean and unbalanced ending. You know, bad for one, and good for the other.

As a further comparison – I saw a film called Cheeni Kum. An older man, who is dating a woman twenty years his junior ruminates – Marriage is the price a man pays for sex. Sex is the price a woman pays for marriage. Think about that. Then consider that in this film every single character is out for a sexual episode on the very same night that they’ve met. According to this film – fucking is the new dating.

I’ll rate it at three-point two five on the one to five scale. At this time, I have no further info about release dates or where to see this film. However if your lifestyle is anything like the ones I watched on-screen today – then you can keep track of The Heart Machine on Facebook. Check out the trailer on Youtube – link is below. [Edited in on October 17th, 2014]