Ostensibly a thriller, The Heart Machine is really a quiet drama that probes the meaning of intimacy in the Internet age, when it’s possible to be emotionally naked with someone you’ve never touched and completely isolated in a room full of people. Cody (John Gallagher Jr.) is a shaggy-haired Brooklyn guy with a winning grin, but even when he’s out at a party the only thing that holds his interest is his phone. He can’t wait to get home and log onto Skype to talk with his girlfriend, Virginia (Kate Lyn Sheil), who lives in Berlin.
Cody and Virginia are in love, but they’ve never met. They do everyday things together via Skype, like when Cody cooks and Virginia watches, or when they have virtual sex. She pretends to share her favorite German candies with him through the screen. They live their lives bathed in the blue light of a computer glow. But then things start changing, in that uneasy way romantic relationships shift deep below the surface, in small details that resonate in the gut but are even harder to quantify in online interactions. Cody suspects Virginia doesn’t live in Berlin, and he begins collecting data like digital breadcrumbs. The mystery shifts from whether or not Virginia is lying to why she might be.
The days and nights spent on BBSs and in IRC chats seem, in retrospect, like the online equivalent of Erica Jong’s zipless fuck compared to today’s always-on world. Back then it really was possible to be anonymous, to disappear completely from the lives of people who felt like confidants. Even bringing those relationships into meatspace didn’t have the same consequences it does now. There are too many traceable bits left behind in every professional and personal interaction to avoid exposure.
The conundrum of online intimacy is that it allows a radical emotional freedom and vulnerability that is often too immediate and too intense to be sustained when the relationship is carried over into day-to-day, physical life. Make no mistake, these are real relationships capable of changing lives or breaking hearts, even if the entire thing takes place over the Internet. The question is whether it’s sustainable beyond that, and why it might feel emotionally safer to choose one over the other. What sort of holes does a relationship like Cody and Virginia’s fill? What inadequacies and fears does it cover up? The Heart Machine never addresses why Cody would prefer to have a long-distance relationship with someone he’s never met in person, especially since it’s easy for him to meet and have casual sex with women in New York City.
Set against the backdrop of Brooklyn and the East Village, The Heart Machine rides on the low-key beauty and charm of its stars, and their easy rapport. They are believable and engaging, even as the narrative itself loses steam. The movie feels as intimate as a late-night Skype session, and writer-director Zachary Wigon naturally incorporates technology into the narrative without being obtrusive. The Heart Machine’s denouement is ultimately disappointing, but the film is still one of the more successful cinematic portrayals of online intimacy.
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, the plot details not talked about in this review, visit The Heart Machine’s spoiler space.