One gander at The Heart Machine’s synopsis is likely to drive some onlookers out of the room, as few contemporary subjects are as riddled with predetermined red flags for skeptics than those purporting to analyze the deleterious effects of technology on human relationships. Frankly, there’s enough of a legacy of skin-deep, clichéd cinematic sketches of this topic to warrant such a reflex. New York filmmaker Zachary Wigon’s concise introspective thriller, by contrast, is a rare example of a work that operates outside expected approaches, showcasing a genuine fascination with the mind/body split engendered by Skyping, online dating, and constant app usage through a plot that doesn’t fuel itself on received wisdom, instead considering its isolated characters as though through an anthropological lens.
In making an impromptu sleuth of its twentysomething male protagonist, the film has a sense of curiosity and exploration in its DNA. Cody (John Gallagher Jr.), a middle-of-the-road young Brooklynite, is a few months into an exclusively cyber relationship with Virginia (Kate Lyn Sheil), a soft-spoken and attractive NYC native in a study-abroad program in Germany for six months—or, at least that’s what she’s told him. The film’s first act, a kind of bedroom procedural in miniature, follows Cody as he picks up stray clues that lead him to believe his girlfriend may actually be conversing with him from a neighboring borough. At one point, Virginia’s especially perplexed reaction to Cody’s offhand admission to spotting her look-alike on a train that day prompts him to retroactively listen back on the Skype video playback for hints of implicating trepidation in her voice. Screenshots also prove a go-to tactic for the resourceful Cody, who’s assembled a closet shrine of potentially significant visual details from their sessions. To a degree not uncommon among the e-socializing classes, Cody is something of a mastermind director of his own omni-channel dominion, restructuring bits of the Internet detritus available to him (Facebook threads, Instagram posts, etc.) in hopes of excavating hidden meanings.
Of course, there are aspects of both ingenuity and creepiness in this single-minded laptop maneuvering, but these are truths not unique to Cody, who Gallagher plays with such decency that it would be unfair to accuse him of anything beneath pure inquisitiveness. When he eventually puts his research into practice, following various breadcrumb trails to Virginia’s regular coffee shop or a bar where someone in a profile photo with Virginia claims to be headed one evening, it’s significant that Cody’s assertive interjections into other people’s lives never come across maliciously, even as the uninformed victims of his obsessive questioning back away in befuddlement. That Wigon aligns the audience with Cody’s Hitchcockian pursuit—complete with lurking following shots and faithful POV angles—summons the thought of just how privileged and omniscient we’re allowed to be through social media, as well as how downright intemperate our behavior might suddenly look when divorced from the sense of security offered from behind a Mac.
Were The Heart Machine attached only to Cody’s perspective, it would stand as a sturdy step-by-step portrayal of digital detective work. What gears it toward a richer rumination on 21st century psychology is its detours into Virginia’s story. Prior to her emergence on screen, she’s an enigma too easily assumed of cruel intentions. Vignettes from her life, however, reveal her as a girl deeply apprehensive about merging physical intimacy with emotional intimacy, a complicated psychological spectrum rendered with a typically virtuosic display of extroverted introversion by Sheil. Wigon never loses sight of Virginia’s narrative even as he follows Cody’s undertaking to its logical conclusion, and the eventual collision of these two threads—safeguarded insecurity versus irritated befuddlement—provides the film with its devastating conclusion, one that Wigon’s unshowy, balanced compositions abstain from picking sides on.