Buster’s Mal Heart Dares To Be Profound
Rami Malek Proves His Success On Mr. Robot Wasn’t Just A Fluke.
Buster’s Mal Heart is an unusual movie. In conversation, I would be hard-pressed to describe the picture without taking a long pause to collect my thoughts: that’s also the beauty of the film. Director, Sarah Adina Smith, examines life’s biggest questions through a cinematic lens. Buster’s Mal Heart doesn’t answer those big questions (SPOILER), but it certainly finds fresh and exciting ways to pose them. If you enjoy deep philosophical discussions and movies steeped in ambiguity, then Buster’s Mal Heart may just be your jam. Throw in a standout performance from Mr. Robot star, Rami Malek, and even those who like their narratives a little more vanilla will want to give this film a shot.
At first, Jonah (Rami Malek) comes off as just another poor schmoe stuck in a dead end job. He spends his nights working shifts in an out of the way hotel. Jonah wants to switch to days (so he can see his wife and young daughter) but doesn’t have the clout. During his lonely nights, Jonah often nods off at his desk or wanders the hotel’s empty facilities. One night, a strange man (DJ Qualls) shows up spewing conspiracy theories. Even though much of the stranger’s rants sound like nonsense, Jonah finds that something about the tirades resonates with him.
At home, Jonah tries explaining to his wife Marty (Kate Lyn Sheil), that he has bigger plans than punching a clock and paying rent. All Jonah wants is a self-sustainable life where he and his family can live off the land. Here’s where the plot gets tricky. Jonah’s story jumps back and forth in time, flashing forward to a period where he is known as Buster. Buster is a bearded, natty-haired vagrant who squats in wealthy people’s vacation homes. To say that the story is jumping back and forth in time is a bit of a misnomer. You don’t know if the ever-weary Jonah is losing his grip on reality, fantasizing, or if the Buster segments are something else entirely. To give away anymore would spoil the film.
First off, let’s address the elephant in the room: Rami Malek’s popular show, Mr. Robot. There are obvious parallels between Buster’s Mal Heart and Malek’s work on Mr. Robot, namely, a man questioning his own sanity. While there is some superficial overlap, the stories differ by as wide a margin as The Getaway differs from The Fast and the Furious. Judging a film by its log line ignores all of its rich texture. This film’s synopsis may mention a man in a fugue state but that’s not the real story. Mr. Robot is about a man taking down an unjust system, Buster’s Mal Heart is about a defiant man on a spiritual journey.
Malek owns this picture from the opening frame; he’s in almost every scene. Not many actors could jump into the Jonah/Buster role and carry the film’s entire emotional haul. Malek must be commended for making the task look easy. Malek keeps the audience engaged in his protagonist’s journey even as the character becomes psychologically unmoored. Qualls shows up and pulls spot duty throughout the film. He just rolls into a scene and delivers a brilliant monologue before fading back into the shadows like Batman. Smith evokes something out of Qualls that I’ve never seen from him before. He’s part The Lone Gunmen and part Walter Sobchak from The Big Lebowski. I’ll be keeping an eye on Qualls’ IMDb page after his performance here.
Smith excels at visually representing Jonah’s tumultuous headspace. While Jonah technically works in a hotel, he may as well be locked away in a dungeon. The dreary hotel is awash in pissy yellows and muddy browns. It’s drab, it’s bleak, and it’s isolated. When things become more difficult for Jonah, his surroundings feel all the more oppressive; the edits become more frantic, and his mind flitters between memories like a rock skipping over a lake.
Scenes taking place outdoors are entirely different experiences. Smith makes sure the viewer feels the call of the wild. Once outside, the visuals become inviting. Smith fills the frame with beautiful, lush wilderness landscapes. Suddenly, Jonah’s yearning to escape society’s day-to-day grind is more relatable.
In order for society to function efficiently, the majority of people must share a commonly held set of beliefs. Jonah is an outlier, his mind is like a record needle that slipped out of its groove. Being brave enough to think freely when everyone else shares a single belief has two likely outcomes. Either the majority are right and you’re wrong, or the majority are wrong and you’re right. Either way, you are out alone in the cold. It takes a certain kind of conviction to rage against everything you’re told is true. When individuals show the level of conviction to oppose the majority we tend to call them crazy. When we look back on individuals who were actually ahead of the curve, we call them visionary. Smith invites the audience to figure out where Jonah/Buster sits on the insane/visionary spectrum.
Buster’s Mal Heart is a cerebral film that demands multiple watches (the opening credits sequence makes so much more sense the second time around). The film dares us to question our place in the grand scheme of things and doesn’t care if we like the answers we come away with. Buster’s Mal Heart isn’t a light watch. If you don’t make an effort to keep up, the movie will leave you in its dust. Those patient enough to untangle Smith’s topsy-turvy narrative structure will find an underlying beauty in her work.