Ambition, insecurity and the fear of abandonment intersect in Torn Hearts, a new thriller from Blumhouse Television and EPIX set in the world of Nashville’s country music scene.
Going into Torn Hearts, it’s hard not to draw comparisons to 2019’s Ma. Despite getting bogged down in some dumb plot contrivances, Ma became a camp classic thanks to Octavia Spenser’s inspired lead performance, as well as its meme-able title.
Torn Hearts is less memorable, though it shares Ma‘s interest in centering a messy, manipulative and desperate older woman who latches onto the vitality of the young people who wander into her web. Both films also have stellar lead actors: Sagal is clearly having a blast playing a booze addled, guilt ridden recluse whose private life is the source of malicious gossip. While the performance could do with less finger tapping (Harper has a physical tic that Torn Hearts relies far too heavily on), Sagal is appropriately regal when she’s swooning around her decaying Sunset Boulevard-inspired mansion in the middle of nowhere. The veteran actress believably anchors the film and infuses enough gravitas in the character that it’s almost (almost) believable that the film’s young characters don’t bolt when a clearly unhinged Harper begins acting even more erratic.
Torn Hearts follows Jordan (Abby Quinn) and Leigh (Alexxis Lemire), a pair of ambitious aspiring country musicians whose band gives the film its name. Jordan is the brash one: she’s the songwriter who is protective about the band’s authenticity and feels that she is doing the work to help Torn Hearts realize their vision. Leigh is the conventionally pretty* lead singer who worries that Jordan thinks she’s less talented and dumb, and is frustrated because she feels she doesn’t get enough credit for networking. These cracks in the partnership are only exasperated by their manager, Richie Raleigh Jones (Joshua Leonard), who is clearly a cad and is also romantically involved with Leigh, which contributes even more tension between the girls.
*Both women are clearly gorgeous
After a bloody (offscreen) cold open involving sister duo Harper (Katey Sagal) and Hope Dutch, a gunshot and a creeping pool of blood, the film introduces Jordan and Leigh as they unknowingly auditioning for rising superstar Caleb Crawford (Shiloh Fernandez). Appearing as the opening act of his summer tour would take the band to new heights, so Leigh and Richie are annoyed when Jordan threatens the deal by sleeping with Caleb. At his house, Jordan learns that Torn Hearts never stood a chance of securing the spot and, seeing an opportunity, she demands Caleb tell her where Harper Dutch lives, pinning all of the bands hopes on cold calling the recluse in order to pitch a single together.
It’s an impulsive, more than a little desperate goal, but the girls ultimately pursue it, driving out to the secluded and run down pink estate before complimenting their way inside. Naturally, though, there’s a great deal more to Harper Dutch than the girls expect, and their fractious relationship reminds Harper of her own loss…to dangerous (albeit predictable) effect.
Predictability, alas, is the biggest problem with Torn Hearts. Not only does the plot stretch the limits of what Leigh and Jordan would believably endure before getting the fuck out of dodge, it becomes evident long before the shit really hits the fan that the film only has a few cards to play.
There just isn’t enough narrative here. The distrust and jealousy between the two aspiring stars is laid out early and screenwriter Rachel Koller Croft repeatedly goes back to the same well, over and over again. The conflict between Jordan and Leigh is too one-note, so that by the time the bloody climax arrives, they – and the audience – have been beaten over the head with it multiple times. This would be more forgivable if Jordan and Leigh’s petty disagreements didn’t repeatedly come at the expense of their survival instincts; the pair are frequently in grave danger, but stop to bicker, which makes them seem stupid.
At one hour and forty minutes, some tightening would have helped. The sluggish pacing is most evident in the draggy middle stretch when Harper repeatedly manipulates the girls to pick away at each other. It seems like Torn Hearts will shift its focus around the 40 minute mark when Leigh and Jordan wake up after a day of binge drinking to discover their clothes have been changed and their phones have gone missing, but Koller Croft’s script merely resorts back to what’s come before. As a result, the film fails to find new and exciting ways to shake things up.
It’s a shame because there’s a lot to like about Torn Hearts. Both Quinn and Lemire do good work to establish their friendship, as well as the concerns Jordan and Leigh have about the other’s behaviour. Over time the story of how the band came together – a fortuitous and sympathetic meeting at the famed Bluebird Cafe – is also complicated, although few of the film’s revelations are ever truly surprising, especially what happened to Hope Dutch in the film’s opening (it is evident from the moment it happens, but Torn Hearts treats it as something of a twist).
Aesthetically Torn Hearts feels appropriately outfitted in country couture, with plenty of shawls, fringe and denim, and Harper’s home interior, while not as decayed as one would expect from the outside, features fun pops of bubblegum pink in unexpected places (and objects).
Grant’s direction is solid, although it’s not an especially showy film. One stand-out sequence finds Jordan and Leigh engaging in some particularly mean truth telling while standing side by side and Grant frames the action from a high angle with each actress isolated in opposite corners to maximize the emotional distance that separates them.
The Bottom Line: Good performances, especially from star Katey Sagal, give the film a lift, but Torn Hearts needs a few more surprises, a stronger dose of camp or a less repetitive script. 3/5
Torn Hearts is now available on EPIX