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Review: 'The Heart Machine' turns nice John Gallagher Jr. into a creepy sociopath

As a look at how technology warps us, it's superior to "Men, Women & Children."

‘The Heart Machine’
Director: Zachary Wigon
Stars:
John Gallagher Jr., Kate Lyn Sheil
Rating: R
4(out of 5) Globes

In “The Heart Machine,” the still, clinical, creeping long takes get us into the skin of its antihero: a scruffy Bushwickian, Cody (John Gallagher Jr.), who can only function, if at all, online. Cody is in a rewarding relationship with Virginia (Kate Lyn Sheil), whom he has never met in the flesh. She Skypes from Berlin, he from Brooklyn, and all is going swimmingly — and sometimes sexily — until the same ambulance siren can be heard from both their screens. Perhaps, Cody wonders, she’s not an ocean away but a mere river.

There’s no easy way to breach this issue, but Cody chooses one of the least ideal. He turns detective, one whose investigation tactics prove sometimes comically amateur and sometimes creepily sociopathic. To bust Sheil’s Virginia as a secret Manhattanite, he skulks about the city, making chummy with people from whom he badly extracts intel. At one point he hooks up with one of her Facebook friends, with the sole intent of cracking into her computer. When confronted, he doesn’t appear to sense he’s done anything wrong.

The source of Cody and Viriginia’s issues should be clear: They’ve been warped by the Internet, which has allows shy wallflowers to thrive in a social format that allows one to obscure, if not completely hide, one’s true self. What’s more, their time online has awakened their worst instincts. It’s not a flattering portrayal of the information superhighway, and perhaps what it’s saying is too easy. Jason Reitman’s “Men, Women & Children” was raked over the coals by some (yours truly included) for its alarmist view of technology and the way it allegedly erodes human interaction and our lives in general.

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Technically, “The Heart Machine” is after something similar: It’s about characters who can only talk with a screen separating them, who’ve forgotten — if they ever knew —how to communicate IRL. The difference is “The Heart Machine” isn't filing a widespread accusation about the Internet and the people addicted to it. It’s a portrait of these two people, not humankind at large. And they’re not the Antonioniesque zombies of “Men, Women & Children.” Sheil, in what may be her most fully realized performance yet (and with not much screentime to boot), goes from an unknowable monster to a more empathetic, anguished human.

Gallagher Jr. goes the other way. He suppresses his innate charm and goofiness — the kind you see as the shy nerd on "The Newsroom" or the upbeat, supportive boyfriend in "Short Term 12" — and by the end has disappeared inside himself. It’s a mystery where the very act of investigation reveals the true villain is the detective —not as a cheap twist, but as a bone-chilling portrait of someone who was never much there to begin with.

Even if you’re not buying "The Heart Machine"'s arguments about technology, you can buy the style. Writer-director Zachary Wigon treats it like a horror film in slow-motion, his glacial long takes sucking all the air out of the room. It’s like being in a room with Cody, one of the true villains on screens now because he seems so harmless —just an affable, hairy, handsome hipster who could never hurt a fly. It’s only when you spend some time with him, in a film whose form seems to simulate his worldview, that it gets under the skin. It’s a hard film to shake off.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter@mattprigge

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