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There are films whose character’s transcend the story itself, people with such profound presence in their own tale, the purpose of their arc is nearly lost to the sheer impact of what they are. We remember them rarely for how their story unfolds but rather for how how they shape our interpretation of it.
With Buster’s Mal Heart, a title that seems generated for a quirky indie romance, that character is a marvelously tormented man (Rami Malek) on a desperate journey who we meet at the start on the run from armed lawmen, chasing him through the woods. He is, as we come to find out, a scraggly, bearded loner nicknamed ‘Buster,’ who hides out in expensive seasonal homes, calling into radio shows warning of ‘the inversion,’ a cataclysmic event that will end mankind. But we also see him as ‘Jonah,’ a clean-cut young family man with a wife named Marty (Kate Lyn Sheil) and two-year-old daughter (Sukha Belle Potter). He works nights as a concierge in a hotel, unhappy with his near destitute life, forced to live with his monstrous mother-in-law. When a jittery man who calls himself the last free man in the world (DJ Qualls) comes by the hotel spouting about ‘the inversion’ and the coming devastation of Y2K, Jonah is ripe for a cosmic shift.
Written and directed by Sarah Adina Smith, Buster’s Mal Heart is a game of catch-up of sorts that sets up what seems like the twisted path of a breakdown but is in fact something else. Told in disjointed parallel storylines, we skip between Buster and Jonah, believing they are linked, visions of him cast alone in a deep green and unsettling sea, metaphorically signaling what we perceive as his continuing mental imbalance. All of this gives Smith and Malek a lot of room to create surreal and often distressing moments where Buster and Jonah seem in constant suffering, be it dealing with the banality of life behind a hotel counter or eking out an existence on the run and as the inevitable collision and consequences of these two lives builds towards an ambiguous end, it all makes for a challenging experience.
We are meant to work out much on our own, and Smith is intent on pushing buttons and the envelope, sometimes to great effect, including an absolutely harrowing sequence that is soaked in dark humor where Buster cooks dinner for an elderly couple he has kidnapped in their own home. Meanwhile, every TV throughout the film displays curiously-related stories of inversions and messages of hope for a man who is lost. We are given clues throughout, and yet Smith refuses to meet our expectations, toying with visuals and narrative twists that outright refuse to play by the rules we think are already set. Not all of it works to be sure, and there are no easy answers, but the questions that linger are not so impenetrable as to make it frustrating.
Buster’s Mal Heart is a marvelous little twister, soaked in confusion and misdirection and for fans of these kinds of arthouse thinkers, it’s a near genius bit of madness. Malek is great fun to watch, and with the film almost barren of dialogue, delivers some caustic moments of untethering. While the film will not be for everyone, and misses perhaps some larger opportunities for a more scathing look at society, it is nonetheless a movie of many tiny treasures that for the willing, is a work demanding to be further examined.
Movie description: Buster's Mal Heart is a 2017 mystery/thriller film about a man on the run who survives the winter breaking into mountain home, haunted by his former life as a family man.
Director(s): Sarah Adina Smith
Actor(s): Rami Malek, DJ Qualls, Kate Lyn Sheil