Brea Grant’s Torn Hearts is a boot-scootin’ Nashville horror flick that puts a “gee-tar” twang on psychological entrapment thrills. Rachel Koller Croft’s screenplay hits the highs and lows of fame-bred tension in the country music industry, a welcome redecoration of typical imprisonment horrors. It’s rarely airtight (as shotgun blasts and betrayals can be equally scattershot), and yet there’s an in-step enjoyment given how cutthroat the altercations become. Grant’s focus on female-driven storytelling levels commentary against an unjust industry as it punishes characters who embrace wicked ways—violence is prettier in pink but no less fierce.
Katey Sagal stars as Harper Dutch, the surviving sister of iconic country duo The Dutchess Sisters, who fizzled out after the unbookable age of 35. Jordan (Abby Quinn) and Leigh (Alexxis Lemire) are up-and-comers performing as Torn Hearts, twenty-somethings chasing their big break. Jordan hears through the grapevine that Harper is searching for the right comeback project and hatches a plan: Torn Hearts featuring Harper Dutch. Jordan and Leigh blow off studio time to surprise Harper on her doorstep with chipper spirits and a fresh strawberry rhubarb pie—Leigh remembers the songstress’ favorite flavor from an interview back when—hoping to convince Harper to record a chart-topper together. Harper invites them inside, locks the door and pours what could be the last drink of Torn Hearts’ career.
It’s a kooky premise based on unannounced strangers and toxic celebrity aftermaths, which is more psychotically charming than not. Torn Hearts are the spunky, wide-eyed partners who haven’t had their allegiances and fantasies challenged yet; Harper’s been chewed up and spat to the dirt by schmuck managers (Joshua Leonard fits the type) and fans who only want pretty young starlets. Worse yet, she’s still haunted by Hope Dutch’s suicide. Her glittery Nashville mansion behind gates choked by overgrowth is an eerie memorial to her late sibling’s stardom. A bubblegum-drunk aesthetic overtakes from the minute Torn Hearts approaches Harper’s cotton-candy-colored fences, and there’s never a sober-up release.
There are two main reasons why Torn Hearts stands out from the crowd: The musical elements are well-produced, and Sagal is overselling with the best of ‘em. Quinn and Lemire’s vocal work behind instrumental performances doesn’t detract like in worse films where hands poorly mimic chord strumming, while a soundtrack of “Dutchess Sisters classics” juxtaposes jubilation atop more dreadful sequences. Sagal’s unraveling is a lesson in clear and present danger, complete with bad attitudes and derangement that reminds vaguely of Psycho. The star devours Jordan and Leigh’s wholesome teamwork vibes quicker than her character guzzles gin, tequila or whiskey. Torn Hearts is a powder keg—filled with exploited, gendered tropes that feed legitimate entertainment industry critiques—which bursts in a Dollywood-glam explosion of flamingo-colored shooters and gruesome backroom discoveries.
Kudos to the production design team and cinematographer Yaron Levy for diamond-studding a space filmed to feel so much bigger than reality. Grant plays alongside the boundaries of horror as she does in 12 Hour Shift, with a sneering sense of humor about the chaos that spirals out—but doesn’t even have half a hospital setting to scamper through. There are nods to 2013’s Maniac (the way Harper displays her and Hope’s old sequined costumes on mannequins anywhere there’s space), which act as landmarks to say, “Here’s another room we’ve yet to explore!” Torn Hearts could have crumbled due to Blumhouse’s meager (by comparison) purse allowances-Into The Dark’s “My Valentine” is eerily similar with less success—but Grant is as resourceful as she is amusingly excessive. She’s like the chef who isn’t afraid to admit everything tastes better fried and isn’t too snobbish to give the people what they want with whatever means she’s got (hot oil, pancake batter and Oreos—nothing fancy required).
Torn Hearts has its moments of predictability between bickering bandmates vying for leadership and the tolls of megastardom—plus some iffy weapons logic—but that’s overcome by a trio of actresses who embrace madness right on key. Music is the heart, soul and scapegoat at the core of Croft’s story, which composer Brittany Allen channels through lyrics that tell an unstable story about everything from trusting the media to men who control and manipulate even the most popular female talents. Grant packs plenty into Torn Hearts’ double-barrel approach, and assures herself as a director who knows her way around a joyfully dark midnighter romp. It’s a sinister and fork-tongued tune that holds a nutty tempo, sure to delight audiences who are into hootin’ and hollerin’ at some honky-tonk horrors.
Director: Brea Grant
Writer: Rachel Koller Croft
Starring: Katey Sagal, Abby Quinn, Alexxis Lemire, Joshua Leonard, Shiloh Fernandez
Release Date: May 20, 2022
Matt Donato is a Los Angeles-based film critic currently published on SlashFilm, Fangoria, Bloody Disgusting, and anywhere else he’s allowed to spread the gospel of Demon Wind. He is also a member of the Hollywood Critics Association. Definitely don’t feed him after midnight.