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Wednesday, December 15, 2021

‘My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To’: Anatomy of Addiction – A Personal Essay

This editorial contains major spoilers.

A child of an alcoholic, I grew up conditioned to expect my mother would be totally blitzed anytime I walked through the front door. An uncontrollable need to drink, often before breakfast and always those 40-ounce tall boys, turned a caring, attentive mother into a mangled and malnourished shell of a person. Her personality changed, and a past littered with trauma bled into desperation, bitterness, and anger. She frequently erupted into juvenile tantrums until you caved and further enabled her behavior. With writer/director Jonathan Cuartas My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To, I found myself replaying our entire relationship and witnessing not only her devolution unraveling on screen but my own.

The film follows two siblings Jessie (Ingrid Sophie Schram) and Dwight (Patrick Fugit) as they care for their sick younger brother Thomas (Owen Campbell), whose strand of vampirism, even though it’s never explicitly described as such, requires frequent feedings. When Thomas is well, he’s sprightly, dashing, and curious about the world, often begging to be let out of the house and play with the neighborhood kids. When Thomas isn’t well, he’s sluggish, lifeless, and practically catatonic. He doesn’t hunt on his own, as the traditional vampire does; but like a vampire, though, sunlight is toxic, and he takes to his bed for hours or days at a time. Jessie and Dwight instead do the hunting for him, choosing their prey based on status in the world 一 the homeless, sex workers, and immigrants commonly cross into their path as potential food.

“She’d actually be a great catch,” says Jessie, suggesting a red-headed hooker named Pam (Katie Preston) as the next target. “She probably knows a lot of people,” Dwight counters, shuffling his body to mask the truth that he knows her quite well. “I doubt any of them care about her,” Jessie argues. The next afternoon, she trails Pam to a sleazy motel on the outskirts of town and quickly discovers Dwight is a regular client. Later, fully knowing his secret, she does not hesitate in playing the familial obligation guilt card (it’s the Queen of Hearts, by the way, displaying a sheepish smile and holding a delicate rose in one hand and a switch knife in the other). “I know it’s hard, but we can’t do it without you. It has to be the three of us… together,” she says, her resentment hanging cool on her tongue. Perhaps, she envies her brother’s midnight dalliances, his way to find joy and pleasure in an otherwise suffocating existence, and likely hates herself for feeling the same way.

Jessie inevitably murders Pam, wheeling her dead corpse back into their home, much to Dwight’s shock and horror. Cracks have splintered all across their relationship, and there’s no other way to go but plummet further into the stench-filled abyss. My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To works as wonderfully as it does because we’re catching Jessie, Dwight, and Thomas in the middle of their story. We don’t get a glimpse into how this all started, and we don’t need to. The gravitas Schram, Fugit, and Campbell bring to their respective roles is electric 一 oscillating between violent outbursts (the scene in which Thomas goes for a leisurely nighttime drive is a prime example) and the quieter, lightning bulb flashes, as when Dwight takes a bath and the sorrow is so indelibly etched into his face you don’t know where his wrinkles begin and pain’s razor edge ends.

I had a difficult time loving my mother. In the last few years of her life (she passed two months ago), I began harboring resentment and rage of my own. Her dependency on alcohol wasn’t the trigger; it was her dependency on me that eventually wore down my mind, body, and spirit. Much like Dwight, I conjured up detailed fantasy of grandeur, living somewhere else, anywhere else, as long as it was another state. I dreamt most often about the shimmering lights of New York City, and for Dwight, ocean sounds and sandy beaches lining California had caught his wonderment. Fleeing to a coastal city seemed to make the most sense when I was younger. Instead of confronting and processing the reality set before me, I wanted to get the hell out, leave the troubles and the pain behind, and wipe the slate clean.

When Jessie kills Pam, it totally destroys Dwight. Pam was his ticket out of this endless hell. Pam was somewhat of a kindred spirit. And it was Pam who regaled a tale of going down to Miami back in the ‘90s. “It’s nice. It’s not what it looks like on TV,” she says. But now, Dwight has to deal with things. He must deal with the responsibility he has to his brother, and he owes his sister the truth. Once one emotional bomb detonates, all bets are off. Earlier in the evening, while Jessie and Dwight are both out scavenging for food, Thomas befriends a local boy named Turner (Judah Bateman) and invites him inside, where they talk about Christmas and play Thomas’ favorite piano game. Dwight’s premature arrival back home catalyzes the rest of the plot, a ripped band aid leading to chaos and Jessie’s death when Turner, hiding in a closet, lurches from the dark and stabs her in the stomach.

Turner bolts into the night and hops on his bicycle, pedaling for dear life and not taking a second to glance over his shoulder. Initially, Dwight wavers on what to do next, but at Jessie’s behest, he’s soon hot on the young boy’s trail, eventually catching him a few blocks away. Perched in his pickup truck, the two share one of the film’s most intimate scenes, containing a sliver of dialogue that further punctures into Dwight’s tortured state of mind. “You don’t know what it’s like to be alone,” he tells the teenager. The rain splatters on the windshield, somehow framing the moment like a polaroid. Dwight’s pain feels like my pain, pulsating and red in my brain, even now. I think about those words, those nine simple words, and it captures the experience of living with and trying to care for an addict. You try to help them, but you lose yourself in the process.

Meanwhile, Jessie instructs Thomas to feed and to drink and to be full of her blood. She’s never one to waste, after all. Dwight later returns to discover his brother Thomas gorging on her neck. “Get off of her!” he screams, slamming the bathroom door. This end was inescapable. You could say, it was always their fate.

Most days, my mother was a creature of the night, sucking on the long-decayed stems of her life, yet there were those brief, blinding flashes of compassion and joy and free-spiritedness that would jolt you awake. It was often music, much like the film’s central characters, that brought out those traits and a renewed zest for living. Now, I cherish those glimpses into the person she always was but which she kept largely hidden from the world.

Dwight scrambles to pack up his belongings, guitar clenched in his fist, and fully intends to leave small town life and his brother in the rearview. He drives out to a local café to enjoy a meager breakfast before hitting the open road. But his guilt, shame, fear, and above all, compassion tugs him home. “I thought you weren’t coming back,” squeaks Thomas, visibly rattled. “I’m here now,” Dwight whispers, barely able to get out the words, as he pulls his brother closer.

The film’s finale is quiet but explosive. Thomas takes a beat before uttering his own death sentence: “Open the window.” Dwight’s eyes balloon for a moment, the gravity of those three words pulverizing his skin. The floodgate instantly bursts with Fugit delivering one helluva performance. Dwight places his brother tenderly back against the headboard, and he two lock eyes, resigning themselves to the only possible way ahead. The silence is deafening. Dwight creeps to the window, and in between his tears, he rips away the curtains and boards blocking out the sun. Without cutting to Thomas, or using silly CGI, Cuartas utilizes the power of suggestion to inform the viewer of what’s happening. Thomas has likely burst into flames, and a stunning white light covers the frame. It’s a beautifully rendered sequence, a true gut punch, the kind that knocks every ounce of air from your lungs.

When it became clear to me I needed to construct boundaries in my relationship with my mother and, more importantly, give myself permission to do so, she suffered a grave personal setback. Coincidentally, as I’m writing this piece, I’ve realized it was exactly 10 years ago this month that she shattered her kneecap on her way to get more beer. It was a characteristically cool November evening, and the time change made the days seem eerily longer, as it always does. My mother had already gulped down five or six canned Natural Ice beers, so you could say she was four sheets to the wind. She left and never came back. A neighbor later told me what happened, and it was then I vowed to enforce the necessary limits in our relationship and never to feel guilty about it.

My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To is magnificent in the way it holds a mirror up to addiction, familial ties and obligation, and the compromises we make to extend our own suffering. The last scene, finding Dwight finally making his way to the shoreline, is that moment when make the choice to live. Whether literally, as with Thomas’ or my mother’s death, or metaphorically, severing the ties that have caused you so much pain over months or years can be cathartic. Dwight looks out over the sea, and a smile pops across his face. He almost can’t believe the beauty and majesty before his very eyes. It’d been there all along, but only now can he fully appreciate it. He’s learned that each moment truly is fleeting and that living, really living, is all any of us have in the end.



source https://bloody-disgusting.com/editorials/3696113/heart-cant-beat-unless-tell-anatomy-addiction/

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