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Total Eclipse of the Heart

Tell Tale (2009)

Eric Lee/Tribeca Film Festival

The world premiere screening of Michael Cuesta’s “Tell Tale,” held Friday night as part of the Tribeca Film Festival, was interrupted with calls for EMS as a man slumped over in his seat, possibly fainting or suffering a seizure. Without making light of the occurrence or improbably speculating about it, it’s not inconceivable that Mr. Cuesta’s film could have such an intensely visceral effect on an audience member.

That’s because the movie is a grisly thriller with an unnerving visual scheme and an amplified sound design that communicates the depth of the horrors – bodily and psychological – visited on the protagonist. He’s Terry (Josh Lucas), single father to Angela (Beatrice Miller). The specter of death looms over their household: Terry has recently had an emergency heart transplant, and Angela suffers from a rare genetic disease that will eventually kill her. Soon after his operation, Terry finds himself stricken by sudden, intense flashbacks to his donor’s murder, and driven by a compulsion to avenge it.

If the premise sounds familiar, that’s because screenwriter Dave Callaham adapted it from Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” a canonical work if ever there was one. It’s appropriate that Mr. Callaham relies on 19th-century source material, because the picture makes every effort to seal off the narrative from the modern surroundings. Set in an unnamed city, the film only specifies a few locations, rarely engages with the particulars of everyday life, and makes a concerted point of locking itself away in the main character’s mind.

The film benefits from the vacuity, as it lets Mr. Cuesta focus his energies squarely on the intense, atmospheric depiction of an individual coming apart at the seams. Mr. Lucas deglamorizes for the part, looking pale, withdrawn and lacking the self-assurance that usually defines his onscreen persona. By inspiring sympathy despite seeming dispiritingly weak-willed, laying bare the scared man functioning with a fearless heart, the actor displays unexpected range. The heart beats that pulsate loudly on the soundtrack, glumly darkened city streets and shock cuts to flurries of images from his donor’s past powerfully express the loneliness of his condition. The picture often lurches abruptly between plot points and never features much of a payoff, but the production’s bells and whistles crawl under your skin.


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