Director: Brea Grant
Writers: Rachel Koller Croft
Cast: Katey Sagal, Abby Quinn, Alexxis Lemire, Joshua Leonard, Shiloh Fernandez
Producers: Paige Pemberton, Paul Uddo
Music: Brittany Allen
Cinematographer: Yaron Levy
Editor: Hunter M. Via
Cert: 15 (TBC)
Running time: 97mins
What’s the story: Small time country music duo Leigh (Lemire) and Jordan (Quinn) think they have struck gold when reclusive star Harper Dutch (Sagal) agrees to record with them. But, in Harper’s rambling mansion, she seems more interested in playing a series of increasingly dangerous games.
What’s the verdict: A delightfully dark chiller, Brea Grant’s neo-Gothic Torn Hearts hits all the right notes. Presumably the one sentence pitch was “Misery is Whatever Happened to Baby Jane on Sunset Blvd.” But there is more to Rachel Koller Croft’s script than pick n’ mix pastiche. Strong characters, an intriguing premise, and a clever feminist horror subtext makes this one of the year’s best discoveries.
Leigh and Jordan’s country music double act is full of promise, but they are still chasing their big break. To grab that sweet soccer mom dollar, their manager, and Leigh’s boyfriend, Richard (Leonard), wants to turn them into a bland MOR act. Jordan is determined to keep the artistry pure; Leigh is caught in the middle.
A hook-up with country sensation Caleb Crawford (Fernandez) gets the musical duo the address of their reclusive idol, Harper Dutch. The women plan to wow Harper with their musical chops, and persuade her to join them for a comeback. Harper was formerly famous as one half of The Dutchess Sisters, before the tragic death of her sibling, the pointedly named Hope.
The younger women are ecstatic when the musical legend agrees to record with them. Although years spent in isolation grieving for Hope has left Harper a little… erratic. And vindictive. And not above the odd physical blow-up.
The question soon becomes, what is the price of fame, and is it worth paying?
Neatly inverting the premise of Misery (here the idol is the threat to the number one fan), Torn Hearts is like a fine country music song. It tells a good story with bags of artistry and elan, but no frills or pretension to knock the melody out of key.
Director Grant knows Croft’s script is gold, so does not over-direct and blunt the impact of the story beats. Rather she uses her widescreen frame to box Leigh and Jordan within Harper’s rambling, rundown mansion. As Harper begins to tap at the weak spots in the younger women’s relationship, look out for how the two younger women move from being framed together to occupying single shots. Alongside the visual subtlety, Grant proves deft at keeping the later physical mayhem coherent.
The film keeps believable Leigh and Jordan’s dilemma of whether to bail and miss their shot, or stay and endure Harper’s cruel games. Chiefly by making Harper a sympathetic villain. Off-hand remarks or barbs laced with traumatic memories at what it took to achieve fame reveal an emotional turmoil swirling just beneath her imperious veneer. Coupled with the bitterness of rejection when age took hold and fame began slipping away. An explosive third act denouement threatens to tip into standard slasher tropes, but instead has character surprises that fool expectations.
Katey Sagal, one of those actors you are always glad to see in the credits, provides a grand Gothic turn as the eccentric, clearly cracked Harper. Physically imposing, yet with a wounded bird aura, she sells the character and is the reason why the younger women don’t run for the door five minutes after arriving.
Alexxis Lemire as the easy going Leigh and Abby Quinn as the tougher Jordan share a natural chemistry, adding real pathos to scenes where they are forced to question the strength of their friendship. Wealth and success are mere trinkets if this Faustian pact means that bond is shattered.
Torn Hearts would make a good companion piece to E.L. Katz’s Cheap Thrills, and has a coda that lands a brilliant final sting. We’d be happy if all involved got the band back together for that difficult second movie.