“We’re like sisters,” says Leigh Blackhouse (Alexxis Lemire) about herself and her best friend/bandmate Jordan Wilder (Abby Quinn). Their country band Torn Hearts is starting to gain traction in Nashville’s bar circuit, but not nearly fast enough to match their aspirations.
Jordan has the talent, Leigh has the star quality, and in a town where, as their manager – and Leigh’s much older boyfriend – Richie Rowley Jones (Joshua Leonard) puts it, “nothing’s free”, both women understand that to exploit others on their path to success and fame, they also need to be willing to be exploited themselves. “You can’t just cut the line,” the much more successful Caleb Crawford (Shiloh Fernandez) tells Jordan, “Just gotta be patient” – even if Jordan has let Caleb sleep with her as part of a ploy to get Torn Hearts touring with him. The plan fails, but Jordan does manage to secure from Caleb the home address of Jordan and Leigh’s idol, Harper Dutch (Katey Segal), whose meteoric success in the Nineties, performing with her actual sister Hope (Alon McKlveen) as the Dutchess Sisters, had broken all kinds of ground for female country artists, before the duo’s popularity faded, Hope died (metaphor alert!) and Harper became a recluse.
Leigh and Jordan are genuine fangirls of the Dutchess Sisters, but they are also motivated by cold opportunism, hoping to persuade Harper to emerge from retirement and record some tracks with them, which would of course be their short cut to celebrity while giving her a comeback. Yet once they have entered Harper’s domain way beyond the city limits, they are also getting themselves into a fraught psychodrama that will amplify all the tensions that exist between them. The fame game can be cruel and cutthroat, and as these two young women negotiate their differences from and similarities to the singing sisters of a previous generation, a tragic history of jealousy, ambition and madness seems set to repeat itself – although surely someone stands to gain from exploiting this tawdry story.
Like her previous 12 Hour Shift (2020), director Brea Grant’s Torn Hearts focuses on women struggling to survive in a highly pressured environment where different drives and desires are in constant conflict, and where predatory men are always circling to take advantage. Overgrown and neglected, the outside grounds of Harper’s remote property instantly evoke Albert and David Maysles’ Grey Gardens (1975), while within is a pink-tinged museum/mausoleum festooned with memories of both Harper’s bygone music career and her late sister. Once inside this hermetic world, it is hard to leave, as menacing, manipulative, unhinged Harper plays – and preys – on Leigh and Jordan’s creative differences to manœuvre them towards enacting her plan to “even things out” and atone for her “unresolved issues” with Hope.
These are the shadowy realms of ‘hagsploitation’, as Rachel Koller Croft’s screenplay draws a little bit on Billy Wilder’s (duly namechecked) Sunset Blvd. (1950), and a little bit on Robert Aldrich’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), all the while delivering the kind of shrill melodrama often found in the lyrics of country song. These women setting out to work together may end up betraying each other, but what pushes them to this extreme (and to cold-blooded murder) are the forces of patriarchy itself (here encapsulated by the music industry) which first use women for their youthful appearance and sex appeal, and for half-hearted, tokenistic window dressing of mostly male playing bills, and then just as quickly discard them at what Harper terms “the wrong side of 35”. In such an openly exploitative environment, where the clock is always ticking, women are readily divided from one another and sisterhood made toxic (“Pick your poison,” as Harper tells her guests).
This is a grim picture of systemic, institutional, often internalised sexism that lets women shine only briefly if at all, and then holds them back and keeps them down, with only each other to fight and punish for it. Yet if you are seeking a cheerier alternative, look no further than Torn Hearts itself – a successful collaboration between a female writer, director and actresses, with a very strong focus on women’s experience (and with the men in the cast and crew all working to realise their female colleagues’ vision). Evidently, to create great feminist art, there is another way and hearts need not be torn.
Torn Hearts had its international première at FrightFest 2022.