The Heart Machine (2014)

17 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Long-distance relationships are always risky, no matter what some people may say. They may sound good enough at first for two people who can’t see each other, because talking on the phone, chatting on Skype, and just hearing each other’s voices will seem like enough. But eventually, there will be a point in which one person (or both people) in the relationship will feel the lack of physical intimacy and want to actually be with the other. Zachary Wigon’s “The Heart Machine” presents that concept with a psychological spin, as it brings us a narrative with two people in an online-dating relationship. Surely enough, one of them becomes paranoid.

The two people in the relationship are Cody (John Gallagher Jr.) and Virginia (Kate Lyn Sheil). Cody is a fairly average New Yorker with a lot of time on his hands during the day and every night to look forward to. Every night, he chats with his girlfriend, Virginia, via webcam. Cody has fallen in love with Virginia and waits impatiently for the day when he can actually touch her. Cody and Virginia have never actually met in person, as Virginia is in Berlin…or is she? Cody swears he sees her double on a train, but then starts to be convinced that he actually saw her and that she may live somewhere in the city. So he checks her social-network page to find some evidence to prove his theory and decides to subtly interrogate those in the city who might know her.

It turns out he’s right. Virginia lives in Greenwich Village. And not only that—she’s a sleep-around. She picks up guys from Craigslist and a hook-up app called Blendr. But every night, she still chats with Cody and still tries to make him believe that she’s in Berlin and the relationship is still going strong.

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Eventually, the relationship is strained due to the distance between Cody and Virginia, and it only gets worse when Cody becomes more paranoid and convinced that he’s being conned and cheated, while Virginia feels more and more isolated when she realizes what she’s doing.

Online dating has been touched upon before but not quite like this. Wigon, who wrote and directed the film, sees this long-distance relationship in a lenient way, not judging the relationship while having a bit of doubt about how it will turn out. He’s presenting the relationship between his characters as a cautionary subject, and we, as an audience, can simply observe and notice the pain and difficulties of such. And I’m glad he used webcam dating to present the topic, so we can see both sides of a long-distance conversation (though mostly we see Virginia talking through the screen of Cody’s laptop to Cody). I mean, let’s face it—would “The Heart Machine” be as strong if these two were just Facebook friends or email buddies and just messaging each other back and forth? Granted, that would be more frustrating for one, waiting for a response from the other. But it would be hard to show that on a film and make it interesting. (Though, if a skilled filmmaker wants to try, I’m interested.) in the scenes involving the video chats, you get a sense of the affection between the two characters and even feel the intimacy through the medium.

John Gallagher Jr. has proven in films like “Short Term 12” that he’s a capable, likable actor. In a starring role, he holds his own quite nicely, capturing Cody’s paranoia and loneliness effectively without a single false note. Even when Cody does a few things that would render him unlikable, such as sneak his way into a guy’s apartment to look at his phone for evidence that he knows Virginia (even when he suspects he doesn’t really know her), Gallagher manages to at least make us understand why he does it.

Kate Lyn Sheil has the film’s most complicated role, as a woman who constantly puts herself in unhappy situations when she fails to acknowledge the possibility of a good thing between her and her boyfriend. That quality makes her character quite unlikable, but it also makes her more real in the way she’s flawed. Though honestly, because of this, it’s a little hard to feel for her near the end of the film, when we’re supposed to buy how hurt she is when she realizes her mistakes. But I’ll let it slide because as I said, she’s flawed, which makes her more realistic.

“The Heart Machine” is an effective untraditional romance, though by no means is it condoning online dating or long-distance relationships. It ends on a note that would even make those who are involved in such a relationship think twice before continuing on. if a film like this can make a reaction like that, I’d say it’s worth checking out.

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