Torn Hearts is actress Brea Grant’s (After Midnight, Dead Night) follow-up to her directorial debut, 12 Hour Shift. Here she’s turned her attention to the music industry. And while genre films about the price of fame stretch from The Phantom of the Opera to The Phantom of the Paradise and The 27 Club most of them are set in the world of rock, and frequently heavy metal. The closest I can think to a county-themed one is the Faustian Southern Rock tale Dark Roads 79.
Torn Hearts is both the title of the film and the name of the musical act led by Jordan (Abby Quinn, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Shithouse) and Leigh (Alexxis Lemire, Cerebrum, Truth or Dare). They’re desperate to go from popular in Nashville to the big time and it looks like they’re about to get their chance as an opening act for star Caleb Crawford (Shiloh Fernandez, Private Property, Evil Dead) currently topping the charts with “Boots On, Blackout”. But, after bedding Jordan, he breaks the news to them that the label wants an all guys tour.
However, she did get something from Caleb that might be worth a lot more. The address of Harper Dutch (Katey Sagal, Married With Children, The Conners), formerly one half of The Dutchess Sisters, who became a recluse after her sister and bandmate, killed herself. If they could convince her to come out of retirement and do a song with them it would put them over.
Writer Rachel Koller Croft sets Torn Hearts up nicely, showing us the differences between the two leads along the way. Jordan is brash and impatient willing to take chances and do whatever she has to for her break. Leigh on the other hand is willing to follow the advice of their promoter, and her boyfriend Richie (Joshua Leonard, Depraved, The Blair Witch Project), and play by the rules in a male-dominated industry.
But the film takes an ominous turn when the duo convinces Harper to let them in. She buzzes them in, and the door closes behind them with an unnaturally loud thud. With the unkempt appearance of the estate, and what we saw in the prologue, it’s even to send a shiver down your spine. And if that doesn’t Harper herself will.
But as the evening wears on and the whiskey flows, Harper’s recollections of her and her sister Hope’s (Alon McKlveen) experiences in the business begin to sound eerily familiar, especially dealing with the men who run it. And she’s very bitter about the way she was treated after she got to “the other side of 35” and not a pretty young thing anymore.
But it’s the next morning when Leigh and Jordan wake up in clothes they don’t remember changing into that the full extent of what they’ve gotten themselves into begins to reveal itself as Harper begins to play with their heads. A situation that rapidly goes from harsh words to slaps and punches and eventually much more.
While there is an obvious influence from films like Sunset Boulevard and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, Sagal isn’t content to play Harper as merely a crazy old woman. She’s certainly crazy and has a closet full of skeletons, but she’s smarter, more complex, and much more dangerous. And she has a field day with the role, mixing charm with bitterness and drunken unpredictability before becoming straight-up menacing as Torn Hearts moves into slasher territory in the final act. Quinn and Lemire both deliver solid performances as well, but this is Sagal’s film.
Along the way, Torn Hearts has a lot to say about showbiz, fame, and how far some people will go in pursuit of it. And what comes after that fane has gone and you’re left to, as Billy Squier put it, “take your pension in loneliness and alcohol”. It’s a tense and at times emotionally bruising story that bursts into violence in the last act. But even then has time for a wonderful bit of singing, and some fitting lyrics.