Thoughts on, and a place to discuss, the plot details we can’t reveal in our review.
It’s not unlikely or rare that a movie like The Heart Machine would be positioned or even interpreted as a thriller, but the payoff at the end has to be worth the misdirection. The central mystery is whether or not Virginia (Kate Lyn Sheil) is lying to her long-distance boyfriend, Cody (John Gallagher Jr.), about living in Berlin. The entirety of their relationship is online; they met on a dating website and conduct their relationship via Skype, and while it’s possible that Virginia is actually also living in New York, it seems like entirely too much work to pull off successfully. Which is why, once Cody begins putting things together, the ruse quickly falls apart.
Cody’s burgeoning paranoia and the increasingly desperate lengths he goes to learn about Virginia and her life in New York before she left for Berlin would make for a compelling drama in and of itself. He goes to a coffee shop she mentions to chat with one of the baristas, then “accidentally” finds himself in the guy’s neighborhood and invites himself up to use the bathroom. He seduces a young woman who is in one of Virginia’s Facebook photos, and the shot of him frantically trying to hide his laptop snooping while making out with the girl is cringe-worthy and wonderful. Cody is the kind of guy a single woman in Brooklyn or downtown New York City might find herself quite smitten with, and to watch him unravel is to get a glimpse of his humanity. Is he acting all that strange, really, given the increasingly likelihood that Virginia is lying to him? Zachary Wigon’s writing and a strong performance by Gallagher make Cody human enough to not just write him off as a creep.
The tension that this builds is deflated as soon as the movie begins to switch between Cody and Virginia’s perspectives, which happens fairly early on. Virginia lives in the East Village, on the very block that some of her Facebook photos show. The beautiful young woman Cody saw on the subway? That was her, of course. She works as an assistant at a publishing company, but she secretly does want to be a writer, and when she goofs off at work, it’s to browse Craigslist for apartments in Berlin.
The deeper reasons why Virginia would lie are disappointingly mundane. For Virginia, it’s easier to hook up with a stranger on a Tinder-like app and go home to Skype with Cody than actually risk a real relationship. She’s been hurt in the past, and this was just a spur of the moment lie, and can’t Cody just, you know, understand?
The real question is how they didn’t run into each other sooner; even with totally different lives and social circles, New York City just isn’t that big. Once you factor in Facebook (and Twitter and Tinder, and, hell, the site they met on), it seems even weirder that Cody didn’t figure this out sooner. She texts and calls him, but what’s her phone number? He didn’t need to map out where the New York City dog runs are—based on the sound of dogs barking in the background of their Skype chat—to figure out she probably still lives in the city.
Although The Heart Machine quickly writes off Virginia’s misdeeds, there’s never any insight into Cody’s emotional history, and why he would be content to be in a monogamous relationship with a person he’s never met. The odds are in his favor in the Hunger Games-like dating atmosphere of New York City, and it’s ridiculously easy for him to meet women, so why does he bother with Virginia? What’s in it for him?