When I sat down to watch Tell Tale, I was excited by the prospect of a modern retelling of Edgar Allan Poe's classic tale of all consuming guilt. What I got was a pedestrian murder mystery borrowing parts from the 'transplanted organ with an agenda of its own' subgenre of horror. To be fair, the protagonist of this film does have a heart and it does seem to have a tale to tell. Beyond that, the bond between Poe's tale and director Michael Cuesta's film is as tenuous as the link between The Fall of the House of Usher and pop star Usher's music career (Yeah!).
Terry Bernard (Josh Lucas) seems to have come up short in the lottery of life. He has a bum ticker, an absent wife and a little girl, Angela (Beatrice Miller), with a rare genetic disorder that is slowly fusing her bones together. If there's an upshot to his situation, it's that he's receiving a heart transplant which could give him a new lease on life. It also helps that Angela's doctor, Elizabeth (Lena Headey) has more than just the little girl's welfare on her mind. She cares for Terry and we can sense a mutual attraction between them. After a successful operation, a convalescing Terry hears a most disturbing thing: the deafening thump of his brand new heart.
Terry approaches his doctor with more than a little concern only to be told that his heart is doing just fine. This sets him off on a new investigative path. He finds out that his heartbeat picks up when he is around a certain paramedic at the hospital. Armed with some knowledge regarding the identity of his heart's donor, Terry confronts the paramedic. This turns into a scuffle which ends badly for the paramedic but at least Terry comes to realize that his donor may not have given us his heart willingly. The rest of the film follows this pattern as Terry is directed to additional culprits in the taking of his donor's heart, guided only by the biological feedback of the organ pumping away in his chest.
Tell Tale is simple and straightforward. This is its biggest fault. While there is nothing wrong with taking a direct approach, here it speaks to the film's lack of ambition. Terry simply goes from villain to villain, dispensing justice because his heart made him do it. The prompt transformation from sickly transplant patient to brutal instrument of vengeance is a bit hard to swallow and prevents the viewer from building real sympathy towards Terry's predicament. I suppose that's why the character of Angela is around. We're probably supposed to feel for her plight and for Terry by association. In reality, Angela's story just adds another grim, unresolved thread to this already bleak tale.
There are a few creative touches which amount to little more than minor flourishes in the sea of clichés. There is a point in the film where Terry decides to confess his sins to the police. Just as he is about to do so, his heart goes into cardiac arrest in order to teach him a lesson. It's a horrifying display of the human body as a flawed machine that can be undermined through a deliberate act of sabotage. The other well-executed sequence comes in the form of a harrowing climax that milks the implied horror of suggested torture for all it's worth. Then there's the matter of the surprising final scene. While it may feel like an afterthought employed to unsettle the viewer, it does have the effect of lending the film some welcome moral ambiguity.
The performances from everyone involved, while competent are hardly memorable. Josh Lucas does what he can with the tortured character of Terry but seems adrift in the mechanics of the plot without anything to anchor his performance to. Lena Headey fares a little better as Angela's doctor and Terry's love interest. She gives Elizabeth a pleasing wry unpredictability which makes it all the more unfortunate when she isn't present on screen. I haven't mentioned him yet but Brian Cox also appears in the film as a cop with a secret of his own. While Cox's performance as Detective Van Doren is perfectly serviceable, the character feels tacked on and superfluous to the film. Van Doren just shows up at odd intervals to support Terry in vague, unspecified terms while advancing his own hidden agenda. Ultimately the performances are symptomatic of what plagues the rest of Tell Tale. It's a half-baked murder mystery that doesn't bother to aim high and as a result lands somewhere in the middle of the road.