A film of the heart that masquerades as a mind-melting mystery, writer-director Sarah Adina Smith’s Buster’s Mal Heart is part puzzling sci-fi, part wrenching destruction of man. Buster’s Mal Heart is muddled by design, whose ends don’t explain the means, but surely justifies them. No matter how much it presents itself as a riddle to be solved, Buster’s Mal Heart is far better as an example of mental anguish and the transformation that heartbreak can cause in extremes.
Rami Malek plays Jonah, a man we (supposedly) are seeing at three different points in his life. At one point, he is seen sporting long hair and beard, sitting within a boat adrift in the ocean, speaking in Spanish and drinking his own pee. It’s within this arc that we see the most obvious similarities between him and his Biblical namesake, directly referencing him, even though it’s his other versions where he says he’s “trying to escape the way everything works and do it his own way” that correlates most closely to the Jonah and the whale story.
In another arc, Jonah is known as “Buster,” a homeless man who breaks into the rich vacation homes of Montanans, sleeping in their beds, eating their food, and sometimes calling radio stations to spout his conspiracy theories about being “The Last Free Man” awaiting “the great inversion.”
The third story is the most profound and compelling, as Jonah works the night shift at a mostly empty hotel. Jonah, his wife, and daughter live with his in-laws, whose sole intent seems to be judging Jonah’s every move. One night, Jonah meets Brown – played by DJ Qualls – a vagabond who claims to be an engineer that preaches of an event that will flip reality as we know it. For a man in the never-ending rut that Jonah finds himself in, Brown’s Matrixy viewpoint might seem far-fetched, but it’s this out-of-the-box thinking that draws Jonah imagination.
Smith sometimes hints that these threads are connected, other times she makes us question whether or not they relate in any way. These three stories could just as easily be three separate short stories, interconnected by the barest of thematic similarities. Even if they had nothing to do with each other, it’s Malek’s performance that transforms Buster’s Mal Heart into an intimate character study, whose sunken eyes tell far more about this character than Smith’s script can. Even if we don’t know his backstory, the pain in Malek’s face about a life that may or may not have occurred, or a future that is just as uncertain, bolsters this story into something close to reality.
As Malek’s first starring role, he utilizes many of the same techniques that make him such a powerhouse on Mr. Robot, especially since the ideas of reality and perception are also brought up just as often in Buster’s Mal Heart. The weight of life-altering moments in his family life are mostly silent, but Malek’s reactions gain sympathy even if his actions are questionable. At the same time, watching Malek as “Buster” can be equally as fascinating, especially in one key scene where he cooks a meal for a captive family, then listens intently to their meandering stories told in fear. There’s both care and unpredictability in each choice made by Malek.
Most curious though is Smith, whose script and directing are intentionally confusing, always making her audience debate reality, connections, and what the hell any of it means. Yet Smith never makes this frustrating, turning the discussion this film will begin into the most exciting part of the entire piece. Smith knows that’s what makes filmmakers like Richard Kelly or especially Shane Carruth so captivating, and plays up the film’s inherent mystery without lasting irritation. Smith’s deft handling of Buster’s Mal Heart makes her an exciting new filmmaker to watch.
Buster’s Mal Heart acts as if its building to some profound reveal, but it’s the more humanistic, non-conspiracy elements that make the film more than its mysteries. In the end, the questions are mostly rhetorical, it’s what Malek and Smith do when posing these questions that makes Buster’s Mal Heart an moving, curious gem that is far more interested in destroying your heart than muddling the mind.