The virtual relationship. Does a lack of space shared negate intimacy? Does intimacy require physical closeness? Following the relationship journey of two individuals, Cody (John Gallagher Jr.) and Virginia (Kate Lyn Sheil), we watch as they navigate the complications of a modern, digital love. The two meet online through a dating website, where Virginia tells Cody that she’s in Berlin for a number of months going forward. They roll with it, growing close over their Skype sessions and deciding to commit to a relationship. However, one sliver of doubt about Virginia’s true location has Cody’s trust spiraling as Virginia deals with knowing herself without simply knowing herself through others.
The movie opens in a club, hazy and vibrant as young adults dance and form connections, however lasting or brief, while Cody, forlorn and alone, sits in the corner, immobile as he checks his phone. He’s escaping the company of real time and real people. This transitions to Cody at home, on Skype with Virginia and immediately he’s more talkative, more animated, charming, even. We watch throughout the movie as the two become more alive and more sociable as they communicate through a guarded medium.
How well do you know a person? How well do you really know someone you claim to love? Does distance breed paranoia?
These questions are raised throughout the film as Virginia spins tales and Cody becomes more and more unhinged due to the lack of physical intimacy their relationship status entails. He can see her, he can listen to her talk about Berlin and watch as she eats German chocolates. They say I love you, they can talk about their days and share each other’s living space, but they’re not involved in each other’s worlds due to a lack of physical proximity. The virtual nature works until there’s a reason to doubt it, and then the lack of shared space creates a disconnect, a constant slew of questions.
The toxicity of a distrustful relationship is explored expertly by director and writer Zachary Wigon, how people now have social media both to their advantage and disadvantage. It allows for a greater means of worldwide communication, but it also closes people off. It’s contradictory in nature, and when you apply that to a relationship it adds to the mess of emotions. The Heart Machine works because it’s true, because it’s uncomfortable.
Neither Gallagher nor Sheil give particularly likable performances; neither character is a particularly likable person, but is that the point? Are they two self-involved individuals or are they simply snapshots, as hazy as their communications allow? Is it any surprise that they’re at their most likable and relatable when they’re talking to one another? Regardless, Gallagher delivers an intense and focused performance as a young man coming apart due to the shakable foundation of his relationship, and Sheil exudes her character’s faux- confidence and real self-doubts beautifully. Gallagher in particular gives an exhaustive performance, constantly keeping us on edge due to his character’s lack of predictability. Let’s add another actor to the list who is shamelessly wasted on The Newsroom.
It’s a quiet movie, slow moving; it’s a character study. It’s about two flawed characters, about their specific levels of commitment that they can and cannot promise, and how they deal with a virtual relationship in a city pulsating with life. The way in which New York City is shot by Wigon is purposeful, not meant to glamorize but purely meant to showcase all of the individuals whose lives they’re passing through.
The Heart Machine isn’t a film that’s going to get much notice aside from the art-house crowd, but it’s a solid and effective showcase, showing just how modern age technology and timeless stories about romance can transcend their confines and dated natures and create something new.
“I hear the ticking of my watch, and yours, a quarter of a second later.”