In the pilot episode of Mike Judge’s sorely underrated music history series Tales from the Tour Bus, Judge explains he wanted to do the show because he found it funny that conservatives constantly bemoaned the violent, drug-fueled antics of gangster rappers when so many country legends were just as wild, if not worse. Any good student of country music history knows exactly what Judge is talking about and not just in the sense of Johnny Cash singing lines like “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.” Country is a genre where someone like Jerry Lee Lewis got the nickname “The Killer” not because of his propensity to kill it on keys but because he was known for his violent temper, something that led to several divorces and, some believe, may have led to the murder of at least one ex-wife. Country is also the realm of icons like George Jones– a notorious coke addict who occasionally shot at his friends, may have kidnapped his wife, fellow star Tammy Wynette, and was known to speak to himself as Donald Duck. It’s not like Jones was alone in shooting friends and acquaintances, either; Johnny Paycheck shot a man in the head over a dispute about a hat and Billy Joe Shaver got together with Willie Nelson to write a hit song about the time he shot somebody. And yet Brea Grant’s horror comedy Torn Hearts, released earlier this year, is the first time I’ve seen somebody think to pair the psycho killer genre with the country music business.
Grant and screenwriter Rachel Koller Croft clearly know their country history and despite the horror framing, there is a visible love for the genre and the city of Nashville running through the material. The eponymous Torn Hearts are a pop country duo just trying to make it in the vicious Nashville scene. Leigh (Alexxis Lemire) is “the face” of the band, singing lead while hitting a tambourine, and her cynical partner Jordan (Abby Quinn) is the frustrated brains of the operation, writing the songs and playing the guitar and simmering at the attention Leigh gets for something Jordan doesn’t think is all that hard. Complicating matters is the fact that Leigh is dating their manager Richie (Joshua Leonard), an older music biz vet who thinks Leigh is destined to be a star but only if she ditches Jordan. After a foreboding flashback opening, the film really kicks off at a Torn Hearts gig where Richie has invited out rising star Caleb Crawford (Shiloh Fernandez), who Jordan initially dismisses as the type of guy who makes “white wine music for soccer moms” but eventually comes around enough to go home with him. It’s at Caleb’s mansion that Jordan gets the real prize– the address of Harper Dutch (Katey Sagal), the reclusive surviving half of The Dutchess Sisters, who seemed to be poised to take over the world in the early ’90s before tragedy struck. Despite a warning from Caleb about the mental state of Harper, Jordan soon convinces Leigh to join her on a road trip to pitch themselves to Harper for a collaboration that will make their careers and bring Harper back into the spotlight.
It doesn’t hurt that Grant’s team absolutely nails the music, either. Everything from the Judds-like material of The Dutchess Sisters– whose hits include “Fishing With My Husband” and “I’m Keeping the Truck”– to the more Miranda Lambert-like songs Torn Hearts prefer feels not only authentic but passionate. Put another way, it feels like Torn Hearts is laughing with Nashville rather than at it. Some of the music, like the acapella centerpiece “Go,” is even genuinely moving– it wouldn’t be out of place on an Alison Krauss record. The downside is that the love and craft on display in that department puts some of the film’s obviously low budget restraints into sharper focus, particularly in the gore effects and some of the set dressing. As is typical for a Blumhouse Production, the film has uninspired cinematography that would look more at home on an episode of some CW show; unsurprisingly, cinematographer Yoran Levy is perhaps best known for shooting MTV’s Scream tv series. The low budget can’t take all the blame either, as this year’s surprise hit Barbarian and even the more horror oriented episodes of Atlanta ably prove that you can get incredible visuals on a budget.
But maybe that’s fitting in a way, since so much of the commentary within Torn Hearts is about Nashville’s focus on cheap glitz over all else, something the film nods to in the spot on wardrobe for all the characters, from Richie’s Nashville suit (complete with F-holes on the back!) to the sequin and fringe stuffed Dutchess Sister stage outfits Harper forces her captives to put on. The visual deficits are more than made up for by the soul the movie has, anyway, as well as its unique setting and framing, making it something like a country version of Get Out, with all the goofy, ramshackle charm that entails. Grant and Croft have succeeded at something that is increasingly hard to do in genre– come up with a fresh twist on a classic set-up that leaves you hoping more filmmakers will follow in their footsteps.
Torn Hearts is currently available on Prime, Paramount and Epix.