Films about ultramodern technology tend to have an air of alarmism about them. Jason Reitman’s dismal Men, Women & Children seized the ubiquity of smartphones as an opportunity to decry the state of the world today, wagging its finger reproachfully like a luddite Reefer Madness. Such films warn us of the dangers in our earbuds or the sedative glow of our mobile screens, as if staring at an iPhone were only a notch above looking inside the Ark of the Covenant.
In its opening minutes, Zachary Wigon’s The Heart Machine likewise seems poised to mount an argument against tech-bound modern living. It begins in a nightclub — thumping techno and lights in pink and blue, a Day-Glo blur of bodies in motion. In the corner we come upon Cody (John Gallagher Jr.), sitting alone in a booth, hunched over his cell and oblivious to the party around him. This image seems to echo a familiar complaint: that fixation on a device can remove us from the moment. But Wigon (a Voice contributor) isn’t interested in merely admonishing Cody for withdrawing into the comfort of his iPhone. A quick cut finds Cody returning to his Bushwick apartment, where, with a few strokes of his laptop keys, he is happily connected to his girlfriend, Virginia (Kate Lyn Sheil), lounging around her bedroom in Berlin.
It’s here that things get interesting. After a passing emergency vehicle on Virginia’s end interrupts an afternoon Skype chat, Cody pulls up a sample of a German ambulance siren on an online soundbank. Cody, it seems, has been recording their conversations, and he has begun to scrutinize each for anomalies — running the audio through noise-reduction software to pick out background sounds, playing through snatches over and over (in a nod to The Conversation). He keeps a cork board pinned up behind the shirts in his closet, where incidental details of Virginia’s German life are rigorously analyzed. He finds discrepancies — even a glimpse of the wrong style of power outlet might be a meaningful clue.
It’s no spoiler to reveal that Virginia is indeed living in New York rather than Berlin, a fact Wigon quite wisely unveils within the first 15 minutes. Nevertheless, Cody remains in the dark, and it’s all we can do to squirm as he goes to increasingly outrageous lengths to solve the case. What results is an exemplary mystery, a paranoid thriller rooted in contemporary technology but not crafted to denounce it. A pair of scenes in the middle of the film, in particular, are small marvels of sustained tension. In the first, Cody stalks a barista he suspects of having dated Virginia. In another, Cody tracks down a young girl he believes to be friends with Virginia after seeing them tagged together in a photo on Facebook. Eyeing his marks from afar with a cigarette pinched between his fingers, Cody could be a detective in a film noir, wearily hunting the next lead. But while technology is the impetus for the case, alarmism is the furthest thing from Wigon’s mind — he’s much too fascinated by its implications to condemn it.