He sets out on his murderous quest as if he were heading out for groceries. Overcast skies enhance the unsettling mood as Dwight makes his way down a winding road in a dark colored Chevy pickup that has seen better days. The burly, scruffy homeless man Dwight picks up has no idea he's about to become dinner for a hungry boy. Crisis averted. Dwight can breathe again, content in the knowledge his baby brother, who subsists on human blood, will live to see another night.
And then it sinks in. He has to keep on being a good provider, even if it means killing innocent people. Again and again. Because as grim and soul-crushing as this vicious cycle is, the alternative is even more unspeakable.
The gallows scenario driving “My Heart Can't Beat Unless You Tell It To,” the brooding, contemplative first feature from Miami-based filmmaker Jonathan Cuartas, asks us to empathize with Dwight (Patrick Fugit), his sister Jessie (Ingrid Sophie Schram) and their frequently bed-ridden younger sibling Thomas (Owen Campbell). Baby bro's particular diet is the source of Dwight's inner turmoil, but love and a sense of duty weigh too heavily for him to turn his back on his family, tempted as he might be to get in his truck and never look back.
That the film, a methodically paced hybrid of horror and domestic drama set to make its official U.S. premiere at next week's virtual Nightstream Film Festival, succeeds in making us care can be attributed to an alchemy of sensibilities behind the camera and the commitment of its cast to imbue their roles with the gravity required to maintain the movie's delicate balancing act.
A feature-length expansion of Cuartas' 2017 short “Kuru,” “My Heart Can't Beat” improves on its source material because the writer-director refuses to let the oppressive subject matter smother the film. He also leavens his lugubrious mise en scene with gentle touches and the occasional absurdist detail without dispelling the somber tone.
“My Heart Can't Beat” would crumble if we didn't buy its central trio as a dysfunctional clan trapped in a draining cycle of codependency, but like the horror films that linger long after the shock value from jolts and freakish sights has worn off, it uses genre trappings to explore specific aspects of the human condition, in this case the toll that caring for a sick family member for an extended period of time can take on loved ones. Cuartas portrays Thomas' literal bloodthirst as an existential leech that sucks joy and hope from those responsible for keeping him alive.
This is where Fugit steps up to the plate, delivering an indelible portrait of familial devotion taken to its logical extreme. The 37-year-old, best known as the high schooler who becomes a Rolling Stone correspondent in Cameron Crowe's “Almost Famous,” gives a richly nuanced performance as a regular Joe longing for release from his burden, his sole reprieve being intimate motel encounters with Pam (Katie Preston), a local sex worker. Those scenes, which give Fugit the chance to show off his dadbod, are more revealing in more ways than one. Cuartas even weaves in a conversation about Miami during a post-coital conversation, thus giving his character an added dimension beyond the film's central conflict.
Opening up his short to feature length also gives Cuartas the opportunity to flesh out Jessie, who's the yin to Dwight's yang.
Fugit's patriarch by default might be the man of the house, but the film makes it clear Jessie is the one who wears the pants in this household. Resourceful and ruthless where Dwight is ambivalent and reluctant, she's the one willing to go to any lengths to ensure Thomas, whose deteriorating health is a pressing concern, has food on the table.
Her day job at a local diner also makes for some workplace laughs, at least of the kind that draw blood, figuratively speaking, such as a scene where she deals with two difficult customers by flashing a chilling smile that would make the Joker green with envy.
If anyone gets the short end of the stick here, it's Campbell, who is saddled with playing a variation on the emo vamp that is predominantly defined by his condition. Cuartas attempts to give Thomas an arc revolving around his loneliness and his yearning to make friends, but those scenes are mostly used to move the plot forward. It's during these moments when “My Heart Can't Beat” is at its weakest. They also lead to the film's strongest moment, a moving climactic exchange that rewards the viewer's investment.
The film, a celebration and deconstruction of what makes a family, is a family affair on the other side of the lens as well. Production designer Rodrigo Cuartas, the director's father, is able to turn the siblings' suburban home into a secondary character, and he manages to find the drab desolation in the scenes away from their house. It's almost perverse the way film mostly refrains from showing off the natural beauty of the Utah locations where it was shot.
But despite the mundane setting, “My Heart Can't Beat” looks absolutely stunning, thanks in large part to cinematographer Michael Cuartas' haunting compositions. Shooting in the boxy Academy aspect ratio gives the ace cameraman, the director's brother, the chance to alternately convey isolation and claustrophobia. His interplay of light and shadow speaks volumes about the characters and the challenges they face. More than any other aspect of the film, his contribution is the glue that holds everything together.
There's no doubt “My Heart Can't Beat” is a labor of love, the kind of character-driven indie film that gives genre fare a good name.
For Cuartas, there is still room for improvement in terms of plotting and narrative structure, but his talents as a humanist and visual storyteller are on ample display. He peers into the abyss of a life of killing, which he depicts as a menial task to be performed, and it takes him to a place of empathy and soothing stillness. He's made a vampire tale illuminated by mercy.
Now that “My Heart Can't Beat Unless You Tell It To” has traveled the international festival circuit, it's set to make its official U.S. premiere as part of Nightstream, a virtual movie showcase that brings together five genre film festivals, including South Florida's very own Popcorn Frights.
The event is set to unspool Oct. 8 to 11. For more information, go to https://nightstream.org.