Although it loses its nerve a bit in the home stretch, Zachary Wigon’s impressive debut feature, “The Heart Machine,” is largely successful in crafting a “Conversation”-like thriller of irrational obsession out of the knotted intricacies of online dating and hookup apps. Thoroughly modern without being ostentatious about it, and featuring excellent performances from Kate Lyn Sheil and John Gallagher Jr., the film boasts pleasures more formal than narrative, but festival audiences should appreciate them all the same.
We first meet protagonist Cody (Gallagher) in a thumping Brooklyn nightclub, where he’s content to ignore the millennial mating rituals around him in order to huddle on the sidelines with his smartphone. Common though that sight may be, Cody isn’t simply antisocial — he has his girlfriend Virginia (Sheil) waiting for him on his laptop at home.
While Virginia does a half-year academic stint in Berlin, the couple “meet up” every night via Skype. They share details of their days, profess their love, cook together (Sheil seems to know the layout of Cody’s kitchen better than he does), and occasionally make love by manual proxies. Filmed organically — with the two actors actually Skyping with each other in real time — their scenes together are nicely played, with real affection bleeding through the inherent awkwardness of the digital medium.
As we learn in due time, however, they’ve never actually met, and Cody can’t shake his suspicions that Virginia isn’t in Berlin at all. He pores through production music libraries to compare German ambulance noises with the sirens heard outside Virginia’s window, traces through their degrees of Facebook separation, scours her facial expressions (and the number of prongs on her electrical appliances) on his archive of saved video clips, and finally begins some amateur IRL sleuthing.
Meanwhile, in scenes that may or may not be contemporaneous, Greenwich Village resident Virginia trawls Craigslist and Blendr for hookups and avoids the attentions of a sleazy novelist at the publishing company where she works. Sheil, who recently tackled a role on “House of Cards” after serving as the reliable cast standout in several Joe Swanberg films, does wonderful work, forging a full-fledged character out of a part that could have easily fallen back on the standard femme-fatale paces, balancing vulnerability, loneliness and warmth with a certain glimmer of malice.
A former film critic, Wigon has clearly spent some serious time studying the tricks of the masters, and he shows precocious instincts for shot composition and one-take suspense sequences. A long scene in which Cody ingratiates himself deeper and deeper into the home of a barista who may or may not have known Virginia, for example, is quite unnerving despite the lack of any explicit danger.
However, as the mystery begins to unravel, the truly low stakes of the film’s central intrigue become increasingly problematic. (After all, the worst-case scenario here is that Cody breaks up with a girl he’s never met.) Despite Gallagher’s creepy, committed performance, the film never gives us quite enough insight into Cody to understand, or at least believe, his mounting paranoia. And the deeper it takes hold (with Cody skipping work and brushing off potential partners), the harder it is to take totally seriously.
The film is unfailing stylish, at times applying an almost classical style of craft to a consummately digital-age story, with cleverly deployed tracking shots and moody nocturnal lensing.