'Buster's Mal Heart'
Sarah Adina Smith’s second feature, ‘Buster’s Mal Heart’, appears to be many things over the course of its running time. Carefully constructed as a non-chronological, reality-bending mind-buster, the film dabbles in David Lynch Land, embracing surrealism and torturing viewers by positing far more questions than answers.
Then the movie wraps up in a rather pat way that will have many asking, “Wait…that’s it?” Whether the intriguing journey is worth the simple destination is a reasonable question.
Rami Malek (‘Mr. Robot’) stars as the titular Buster, and we’re introduced to several very different facets of the same personality. First, there’s a drifting Buster on a boat in the middle of the ocean, looking like a classic castaway. Then there’s a hermit Buster, strolling through wintery woods and living in abandoned off-season cottages while pursued by police. Finally, there’s the only non-bearded Buster, a quiet religious man with a loving wife (Kate Lyn Sheil), an adorable daughter, some irritating in-laws, and a mind-numbing night shift gig at a massive hotel.
Slowly, the stories spiral out and connect. The boat journey remains abstract and the hermit tale becomes creepy and comedic once he politely takes some hostages. The hotel clerk plot gets the most attention. Gradually, viewers are introduced to a quiet man saved by love. He works himself to exhaustion hoping to buy a home for his family and is visited by a cocaine snorting drifter (DJ Qualls) who spins paranoid yarns about being “the last free man” and the need to drop out of society before Y2K makes it all collapse. Eventually, Buster starts to wonder if the weird guy is on to something.
‘Buster’s Mal Heart’ is a tricky film to get into. Like Nicolas Winding Refn’s ‘Fear X’, for a while it feels like a surreal mystery with no real answer. The three plot threads barely seem related. It’s unclear what’s real and what’s fantasy. That’s all deliberate, of course. Writer/director Smith (‘The Midnight Swim’) drops viewers into the fractured mind of a paranoid protagonist. It’s clear that at least the most substantial storyline takes place in reality. As for the rest? For most of the movie, who knows? The hermit plot feels like a possible future with the police referring to an unstated tragedy that got the lost man to this state. For a while, the director offers no easy answers.
As pretentious and punishing as that sounds, the film is also surprisingly rich and entertaining. The production has considerable humor – deadpan, surreal and otherwise. While Smith might have some dark and high-minded tricks up her sleeve, she’s also quite a playful filmmaker, indulging in slapstick, snappy dialogue, and even some scatological jokes. Like a vintage Lynch film, the humor never detracts from the overall sense of tension and dread. If anything, it enhances those qualities by keeping viewers consistently off-balance. Smith also shoots in a heightened style. Colors are just a little too bright and costumes are just a little too eccentric. It’s hard to find firm footing in these worlds.
The performances vary from grounded (Kate Lyn Sheil) to playfully over-the-top (DJ Qualls, both as funny as his teen comedy roots and oddly disturbing in a way that shows untapped range). Malek walks a line in the middle. He creates a character filled with inner turmoil and pain, using his unmoving sunken eyes to showcase deep trauma. Then he also does some physical business in the bearded oddball roles that gets big laughs. Even if it’s unclear precisely how all these story strands, images, ideas and non sequiturs add up for the bulk of the running time, the consistently committed performances and peculiarly fascinating images keep you glued to the screen.
When Smith lays down her grand design, the plot is surprisingly simple once the order of events is sorted out, and it’s impressive how few of the seemingly surreal asides actually serve a logical purpose. Some might find the ultimate twist a bit cheap and needlessly bleak, but it worked for me in context. A big part of that is Malek’s impressive lead performance, which glues it all together. While all the show-off stylistic tics might feel a bit overblown and unnecessary, and subtext can stumble out overstated, the core of the story has emotional resonance and Smith pulls off an impressive tonal juggling act by using so much odd comedy to get there.
Ultimately, ‘Buster’s Mal Heart’ isn’t quite as profound as it pretends to be. However, it’s one hell of a calling card for the second-time director, proving that Sarah Adina Smith has a unique style and voice (despite her many obvious influences) that could very well lead to some fascinating films in the future.