“There are no rules. It’s the wild west out there baby.”
That’s a line that Kate Lyn Sheil’s Virginia says near the beginning of The Heart Machine to describe online dating. In reality, the experiences in Zachary Wigon’s film are less like a saloon shootout and more like a psychological thriller, where paranoia and lies consume the mind until everything else falls by the wayside.
Cody (John Gallagher Jr.) is a fairly average twenty-something New Yorker who spends much of his time talking to his girlfriend Virginia. The difference between Cody and most is that he’s never actually met his girlfriend. That’s because he found her online while she’s away studying in Berlin. Despite the lack of actual physical intimacy, Cody has fallen hard and stays devoted to the girl he hopes to meet one day, as they spend night after night talking, cooking together, and making love to each other in the only way that distance lovers can. The relationship progresses, but he begins to get the feeling that she may not actually be in Berlin, but rather in New York City not far from where he lives.
It turns out his hunch is absolutely true. Virginia is in Greenwich Village spending most of her nights meeting with random guys off of Craigslist and a hook-up app called Blendr. Still, she goes home every night and video-chats with Cody, attempting to keep the illusion alive that she’s on another continent, until finally the distance begins to strain their relationship.
The world of online dating is a complex one that few movies have attempted to explore and even fewer have explored well. In his directorial debut, Zachary Wigon (who also wrote the film) has found a way to delve into that topic better than anyone else has done in the past. For many, a new relationship can be the cause of a fair bit of anxiety. Adding in the element of trying to get to know a person from a distance, before ever actually meeting, only complicates things further. Wigon knows this, and he provides a skeptical, yet non-judgmental look at the online dating machine.
Technology-based communication is a hard thing to portray on screen. Far too many movies have had overly long scenes of texting and instant messaging that end up detracting from the story. It’s just not all that interesting to watch someone type an e-mail, so whenever that becomes a focal point of a movie, the result usually isn’t entertaining. Despite dealing with the intricacies of online dating, Wigon avoids relying on those modes of communication to convey information to the audience. He’s able to handle the video chats in a way that actually feel intimate. There’s a sense of real affection as opposed to something forced through the medium, and it’s impressive on the part of both the acting and the direction.
Still, the affection that comes across doesn’t seem to be because of a real, loving relationship between the two, but rather because they both want to be in love with each other. Their relationship is cold and things seem tense and distant from the start. Then again, perhaps it’s appropriate that things seem distant since Cody believes that they’re an eight-hour flight apart.
Right from the start, Cody is paranoid. No matter how great things are when he’s talking to Virginia, he can’t shake the suspicion that she’s lying about her location. From hearing un-European sirens to noticing an American outlet, Cody lets his uncertainty consume him until it leads to a lot of sleuthing and a series of uncomfortable interactions with complete strangers as he tries to track down the truth about his girlfriend.
Gallagher really steals the show here by playing all those scenes extremely well, remaining grounded as a character who isn’t insane but just lonely and lacking in confidence. Cody is a creepily fixated person, and Gallagher’s commitment to that obsession is what drives his performance to its heart-wrenching excellence.
There’s a scene where Cody invites himself into the apartment of a guy who he thinks may have possibly dated Virginia at one point. Even after it’s clear that the guy probably doesn’t know her, Cody continues to press for information out of desperation. The scene lingers to the point of becoming uncomfortable in a way that few romantic movies achieve. While there’s no actual physical danger involved, the awkwardness of that scene sums up the level of Cody’s desperation quite well.
It’s an excellent decision by Wigon to reveal that Virginia isn’t in Berlin from the start. It would’ve been easy to withhold that information, retain suspense, and make the majority of the movie about Cody’s paranoia. Rather than getting inside the head of one character though, Wigon allows us inside the head of two complex and interesting characters, and the film is exponentially better for it. It shows that while Cody allows his suspicions to overcome him, he isn’t actually crazy, and that makes him a much more likeable character than he might have been otherwise.
As interesting as it is to watch Cody begin to unravel, Virginia remains a fairly unlikeable character. It’s as if every decision she makes is just to hinder her own happiness. She’s extremely flawed, which makes her seem real, but that also stands in the way of ever rooting for Cody and her to make it. Then again, this isn’t your traditional romance, so there doesn’t necessarily need to be a reason to pull for them. Still, it would be nice if she had a few more redeeming qualities or at least was somewhat receptive to Cody’s faithfulness.
Online dating has its vehement supporters and opponents, but there’s no arguing that it has changed the way that people meet, so the traditional romantic film format isn’t as applicable as it once was. With The Heart Machine, Wigon takes the critical parts of that format and modernizes them, finding the perfect balance to appeal to all audiences. It’s intimate enough that it’s appealing and cold enough that it doesn’t seem cliche. The result is a solid look at a tricky, yet relevant topic.
Zachary Wigon uses the right balance of intimacy and paranoia to create an interesting and heartfelt movie about the reality of many modern relationships.