Sarah Adina Smith’s first film, The Midnight Swim is a POV documentary-style thriller told from the perspective of a mentally unstable woman. In her follow up film, Buster’s Mal Heart, Smith takes things to the next level, creating an entire world out of her protagonist’s psychology. Those who were frustrated with the ambiguity of her first film will not find this one any easier to chew. The film weaves a complex web, cycling through different times and places, and yet, despite its beguiling structure, Buster’s Mal Heart feels surprisingly familiar. It’s a bit disappointing to be able to see through the straight line through the miasma and to realize that the journey you are on isn’t a new one, merely a familiar path shrouded in fog.
Rami Malek (Mr. Robot) stars as Jonah, or Buster as he’s come to be known. The film opens on New Year’s Eve 1999; Jonah has been living for years in the mountains of the Northwest, camping in caves and breaking into wealthy families’ vacation homes while they’re away. He’s become something of a local legend talked about by the local radio stations that gave him the name Buster. On New Year’s Day, Jonah finds himself in a standoff with the local police, who’ve surrounded his cave in a very First Blood fashion. The film then flashes back several years to his pre-mountain man days the mid-1990s where he has a wife, a child, and a job working as the night concierge at a hotel.
These flashbacks, which make up the bulk of the film, are where Buster’s Mal Heart starts to feel familiar. Jonah’s work on the night shift begins to eat away at him, straining his relationship with his wife Marty (Kate Lyn Shell, You’re Next). That’s when an unnamed hacker, vagabond, and conspiracy theorist with no name played by DJ Qualls (The New Guy) shows up talking about Y2K, the machine, and a cataclysmic event called The Inversion. Having seen the beginning of the film, we know can guess that it’s not long before these ideas start to take hold in Jonah’s mind.
It’s fitting that Buster’s Mal Heart would take place in the mid 90s; it feels very much like a thriller from that era. Smith delights in warping the film’s narrative along psychosomatic lines. One of Buster’s Mal Heart big twists likely would have killed in 1996. Twenty odd years later, the most shocking thing about the twist is that Smith doesn’t subvert in some way. Of course, there’s more than one shell shocker here and as the film falls deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole, it raises questions about duality, identity, and parallel universes. Soon we’re jumping between not just Jonah and Buster, but another version of him adrift in the middle of the ocean on a tiny boat. It’s all very odd.
What makes the whole endeavor feel worthwhile is the nagging suspicion that there might be a real method to the madness that is Buster’s Mal Heart. Be it the meaningful doubling of a number of elements, or the careful layering of narratives, Smith has either built the film around an obfuscated but solid central idea, or is every good at convincing us she has. I can’t think of an actor but Rami Malek who would be able to so adeptly inject humor and pathos into a character like Jonah. Malek carries the film and is proving himself to be one of the go-to leading men for offbeat projects – and Buster’s Mal Heart is nothing if not offbeat.
Verdict: 3 out of 5
The mileage you get out of Buster’s Mal Heart will be dependent entirely on the amount of patience you are willing to devote to it. This is not an easily digestible film and, unfortunately, it’s not one that’s obviously worth your time. The film makes a misstep or two, and some viewers will likely be unable to shake the feeling they’re being played with. Sarah Adina Smith is turning out to be one of the most interesting young filmmakers working today, but her ideas are still bigger than the films she’s attempting to translate them through. Unconstrained by the found footage format, in Buster’s Mal Heart she shows herself to be as adventurous with cuts and camera as she is with narrative. It’s an adventurous sophomore film – challenging and frustrating and not always successful – but always interesting.