More than 15 years have passed since You’ve Got Mail, and online dating in the movies can still seem a little weird. Thanks to video chat programs like Skype, they’ve at least become more visual, but there’s still the issue of disconnect between characters that is obviously realistic but also heightened by the extra screen of the movie frame. When we see a couple talking through their computers, one of them is always going to seem extremely distant and also extremely confined by that computer window. It’s hard to feel something between two people in love through that barrier, even if we know what the experience is like, how that feeling can exist. It’s one of the very few things holding down The Heart Machine, an otherwise superb romantic drama that does seem conscious of having to grapple with such an obstacle.
But the film’s pair, Cody and Virginia (John Gallagher Jr. and Kate Lyn Sheil), aren’t given a lot of comfort time to show us any true feelings. In the opening scene they’re Skyping, well into a relationship it seems, and on her end is the sound of a lot of emergency vehicle sirens. After they hang up, Cody goes to a sound effects website to remind himself of what a German ambulance actually sounds like, because as it turns out Virginia has led him to believe she’s in Berlin for six months. And that German ambulance clip is not what he heard on the call earlier. Suddenly he’s obsessively suspicious, and so for us their romance quickly has cracks in the one side. They continue to have cyber sex and spend long periods of time comfortably chatting, but they never seem totally excited to be in each other’s company. Maybe that’s how they’ve always been, but we don’t get enough of the good times before that immediate catalyst to know.
Cody begins a personal investigation to find Virginia in Manhattan, across the river from where he resides in Brooklyn. It’s a real mystery for him, but not for us, because writer/director Zachary Wigon (also a film critic for the Village Voice, this is his feature directorial debut) quickly shows us Virginia’s true daily life, which yes indeed is in New York City. And not only is she clearly lying to the long-distance boyfriend she says she loves, but she’s going out on casual encounters with other men, as well. Meanwhile he’s poring over clues that he can glean from each chat session. A map with the East Village circled appears to have been up on his wall a while. Was he in doubt even before the sirens? Is his mistrust a commitment issue? Is her reasoning for making up Berlin also a commitment issue?
As he gets closer on the case, Cody reveals himself to be a very socially awkward guy. It starts to make sense why he doesn’t have a girlfriend in the real world. His tactics as a detective are mostly of the simple exploitation of Internet non-privacy variety, i.e. digging through Facebook and Twitter to find connections between people and easily happen upon the whereabouts of strangers who might have answers he’s looking for. Sam Spade he’s not, though, as he bungles attempts by being too creepily nosey and never just honestly upfront. In the role, Gallagher exudes a nervousness somewhere between Scottie Ferguson and Norman Bates. He’s part sheep, part wolf. Sheil, on the other hand, is rather bland but in a way that seems cool as a cover for her unhappiness.
Neither character is really that well-defined, but they’re played enticingly and are believable human beings as constructs in this indie drama take on a sort of circumstance that we’re seeing, thanks to MTV’s Catfish show, isn’t all that abnormal. The Heart Machine, as its title should suggest, is a cold film. It’s got old-fashioned paranoia tones and an atmosphere of alienation in a way that suggests this might be what it’d look like if Michelangelo Antonioni directed a Nora Ephron script. I wish like both of those filmmakers it used its settings better, however; it’s a work that could speak so much to the dating experience in New York City if only it put more significance on the locations and why this story is taking place there.
I also wish we could have seen more chemistry between Cody and Virginia earlier than when the film’s plot begins, but maybe there wasn’t any, and that’s intentional. The machine can be both a boundary and a means of pseudo intimacy that fools the heart. This film is more cerebral than sentimental, but it’s not going to fool the heart by any measure. For a warm equivalent, check out the inventive 2013 film Hank and Asha (if it ever becomes available), but if you want a tight, well-acted skeptical look at Internet romance, Wigon’s first feature is perfectly compatible.
The Upside: Great performances matched with a great premise, which could have been cheesy if executed by a lesser talent
The Downside: There could have been more chemistry between the characters to have us caring about whether or not they end up together
On the Side: Both Sheil and Libby Woodbridge, who is one of only a few other actors with speaking roles, were both regulars on the second season of The House of Cards.