Written by Sam Vargas
It’s often said that blood is thicker than water, that there’s nothing stronger than familial bonds. Still, there’s no idiom to explain the complicated relationships that arise when your family starts craving blood. For siblings Jessie (Ingrid Sophie Schram) and Dwight (Patrick Fugit), the love they have for their sick brother seems to know no bounds, even if it means committing unspeakable acts to protect him.
Director Jonathan Cuartas explores the complex nature of familial responsibility in his first full-length feature My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To (2020). The horror-drama follows an isolated, reclusive family as they navigate the role of caretaker for their young brother and his mysterious illness. But taking care of Thomas (Owen Campbell) doesn’t just mean trips to the pharmacy or special tutoring, he requires fresh human blood to survive. While Jessie is determined to do whatever is necessary to protect her baby brother, soft-spoken Dwight finds himself questioning whether or not he can continue hunting those around him.
The film invokes a tense, uncomfortable slow burn as the characters navigate their sense of duty with their underlying desire for freedom. The tone is reminiscent of cult favorites like Dogtooth (2010) and We Are What We Are (2013), both of which explore unconventional, cultish family dynamics. Although the film follows a traditional narrative, the audience experiences a complex sense of self-awareness alongside Dwight, who finds himself fighting against the instability of their livelihood. Dwight, who yearns for experiences beyond his devastating existence, offers a glimpse into the internal battle that comes with sacrificing yourself for your family.
Although the vampire genre may seem oversaturated, especially in the last two decades, the subversion of genre expectations comes across as incredibly intentional and smart. The film never hand-feeds the audience, but rather leaves subtle clues up through the climax of tension. Cuartas masterfully walks the line between the implication of blatant human depravity and supernatural phenomena, leaving the interpretation up to the audience up until the end of the film. This only adds to the disturbing nature of the story, which feels like a journey through disillusionment as the audience questions the reality behind Thomas’s illness.
Visually, Cuatros offers incredible juxtaposition between moments of dull, mundane nothingness and compelling frames of intense emotion. He utilizes a neutral, brown color palette often accompanied by heavy shadows, which is broken up by moments of blue-toned artificial lighting and the occasional, gorgeous landscape shot. While he relies on stagnant shots, his use of camera focus and lighting is able to amplify moments that would otherwise fall flat. The sound design also contributes to the eerie, disturbing nature of the film, opting for very little background music or narrative sound. While the atmosphere gives the superficial impression of a warm, midwestern home, the nefarious nature of the family’s activities seems to seep into the shadows of every shot.
While there are definitely moments of disturbing gore, the film primarily functions as a tragedy. The audience knows it’s objectively wrong to prey on the vulnerable, yet there’s an underlying sense of empathy and understanding. This is only elevated by the wonderful performances from Schram and Fugit, who so clearly love their sick brother. It’s a message that’s able to transcend genre barriers because almost everyone can relate to the bittersweet necessity of personal sacrifice.
Still, there are a handful of moments and performances that seem to drag. Non-essential side characters like Pam, the sex worker that Dwight often visits, seems to give a stunted performance. But these scenes are few and far between, especially when compared to the impressive main cast. While the writing may stumble at moments and feel a bit unorganized, Cuatros is able to maintain its strong, disturbing tone. The actual storyline is always interesting and the characters always feel four-dimensional, which only contributes to the complex empathy one can feel for the whole family.
My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To is a beautifully dark film that’s able to reach unbelievably emotional depths. It’s obvious that Cuartros is a director to watch as his career progresses. He’s certainly got a strong grip on the horror genre, and we’ll be watching out as he continues to sink his teeth in further.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5