Buster’s Mal Heart

Studio: Well Go USA
Directed by Sarah Adina Smith

May 12, 2017 Web Exclusive
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Sarah Adina Smith's debut feature The Midnight Swim was a remarkable debut that was sometimes hampered by its own self-conscious cleverness, but with Buster's Mal Heart, Smith has shaken off any freshman shortcomings to create a fully realized and radically experimental psychological thriller. While the antecedents and peers are clear enough — Josephine Decker, Alex Cox, and hell, even Stanley Kubrick (the latter mostly in Smith's generous use of desolate settings and elaborate symmetries) — Buster's Mal Heart bears scrutiny without the aid of these reference points, and never feels imitative.

Rami Malek (Mr. Robot) is quietly spectacular in the lead as Buster/Jonah, which at the beginning of the film manifests as three separate roles. Slowly, in pieces, we find out how these three tie together as one, how a quintessential "struggling family man" archetype working the graveyard shift at a remote Montana hotel to support his wife and infant child (Kate Lyn Sheil and Sukha Belle Potter, respectively) can also be a composite of the Unabomber and "The Last True Hermit", as well as a man adrift at sea. Malek is given plenty of scenery to chew, but does so with restraint and soul even when there's ample opportunity to be hammy.

DJ Qualls, whose character weasels into Jonah's life as "The Last Free Man" and does more than anyone to precipitate the psychic inversion that effectively transforms Jonah into Buster, veers closer to an X-Files caricature of a bug-eyed conspiracy theorist, but context justifies what might otherwise be well-worn territory: Qualls' character feels knowingly postmodern, both a tribute to and parody of pre-millennium tension (which, of course, feels charmingly anachronistic in light — or, rather, in dark — of our current national horror show).

Smith has refined her approach on every level here, making a film that is at once her leanest and most ambitious work to date. A perfect balance of space and control is struck between director and cast, and Smith's almost-signature blend of haphazard documentary footage and ornate, deliberate set shots feels more natural than it had prior. The pacing is taut and consistently engaging, a feat which is all the more impressive given the film's sometimes convoluted structure. Oh, and it's funny, too: comedic forays into service industry politics, Christian dogma, and nigh-Lynchian depictions of rural cops all seem like they should be too much for a movie that also touches on toxic masculinity, our relationship to media, and general mental stability, but virtually no piece feels strained or out of place. Even when the film tarries perilously close to Fight Club "what is reality?" territory, it works to ultimately benefit the whole.

The natural inclination after viewing Buster's Mal Heart might be to designate Smith and her collaborators here as "talents to watch" from here on in, but really, that seems silly. Even if Smith never hits the mark again, or if everyone involved in Buster's Mal Heart never makes another film, they've already nailed it. If there's one obvious lesson driven home by watching this movie, it's that you never really know what the future will bring.

Author rating: 9/10

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Average reader rating: 10/10


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