Buster’s Mal Heart (2017)
Written and Directed by Sarah Adina Smith
Jonah (Rami Malek) is adrift in the sea in a rickety boat. He’s also been given the nickname Buster and is pillage the mountain home retreats of millionaires in Montana. Yet in another life, he was the concierge at a dead end hotel on the outskirts of those Montana mountains. He had a wife and a young daughter, with plans to save up and buy a piece of land where they could be “free.” Into Jonah’s life comes a strange, nameless drifter (DJ Qualls) who claims to be the Prophet of the Second Inversion and starts talking up Y2K conspiracies theories. Something is happening to Jonah that will lead him down a strange path and result in even the very notion of identity coming into question.
Buster’s Mal Heart is a very ambitious picture from writer/director Sarah Adina Smith. And while the film aspires to great heights, it ultimately becomes predictable on a significant plot development and then a muddled mess. What is strong here are the performances, particularly Rami Malek. The sense of exhaustion Jonah has from working the night shift is presented very palpably. Malek has a distinct talent for conveying the range of emotion this character goes through, excited about his life with his wife and daughter to being broken and caught in mechanical routines as he plunders the snow covered homes of the wealthy.
The film works best when it focuses on the very human aspects of this story. Jonah’s anxieties. The true moments of joy the parents share with their daughter. Worries about finances. The stakes are raised with the introduction of DJ Qualls’ character who appears to be a catalyst to create problems. But then, the film sort of forgets about him for awhile until bringing him back to push the plot forward. When the movie starts to try and weave the three narratives together is when it gets a little too overwhelming and falls flat.
Smith cleverly works in televangelist broadcasts that were filmed for the movie. They have the perfect lo-fi aesthetic to make them just creepy and unnerving enough, but still like something you would come across in the middle of the night on television. Silence is used liberally throughout to allow the film to settle into its tone, perfect for a snowy hotel plunked down in the middle of nowhere.
But in the end, there is a bit of a reach too far to make Buster’s a philosophically profound film. It makes for some interesting visuals and surprises, but the substance just isn’t there to support the ideas. I am interested to see what Smith does next because the film looks great and has a strong tone.