DIRECTED BY: Sarah Adina Smith
FEATURING: Rami Malek, DJ Qualls, Kate Lyn Sheil
PLOT: A mysterious loner living in isolation in the mountains survives off the food and shelter of unused vacation homes; through flashbacks we see how his life unraveled after meeting a doomsday-prophesying computer engineer.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: With its nonlinear style and a few nearly incomprehensible plot elements, this is definitely weird. But it also throws in a by-now familiar twist that makes it feel less special.
COMMENTS: For years, a man (Rami Malek) known only as “Buster” has been haunting the woods where a number of high-end vacation homes lie empty the majority of the year. He breaks into these homes and stays for a few days at a time, neatly tidying up after himself but often leaving some memento of his visit behind for the owners to find. The only interactions we see him engage in are periodic phone calls to radio DJ’s and phone sex workers, warning them of some impending doom called “the Inversion.” In an alternate vision of his life, he is lost at sea, waiting out his own death on a small rowboat, alternating between English and Spanish as he shouts at the sky. With the third version of Buster, we learn his history. He was once named “Jonah,” a hard-working young family man who had overcome drug addiction and homelessness and found salvation (and a wife) in the church. He works the night shift at a quiet airport hotel, and dreams of whisking his family away from the toil of working-class suburban life to their very own plot of land in the mountains, where they can live on their own terms. Jonah’s chance encounter with an unnamed drifter (DJ Qualls) who foretells the end of the world sets a chain of events in motion that leads to drastic changes in his lifestyle and worldview.
Buster’s Mal Heart is an exercise in nonlinear, enigmatic storytelling. Each scene is a flashback, a flash forward, or a flash-sideways, with seeming revelations about the protagonist often resulting in more questions, wrong turns, or dead ends. But writer/director Sarah Adina Smith (known for her stunning, secretive debut The Midnight Swim) throws viewers some bread crumbs, hinting at overarching themes. It seems that all of Jonah’s life as we know it is a constant push-pull between a “normal,” responsible, social existence and a completely free, independent one. He works in the hospitality industry, but due to his hours he spends most of his shifts alone, cleaning up the barren spaces of the hotel or sitting at the front desk staring blankly at the empty lobby. He loves his wife, Marty (Kate Lyn Sheil), and young daughter, but refuses to imagine a buttoned-up suburban life for them, instead saving all of his money to build them a cabin on a lake. He is an active member of an unspecific Christian church, but not actually invested in religion, likely remaining only because it is so important to his wife and her overbearing family. This dichotomy is further stressed in his bilinguality: a common fact of life for many in the real world, but in the film it serves as a constant reminder of his “otherness” within his predominantly white environment, and his ability to incorporate a kind of double-ness in his thoughts and experiences. Malek sells his character’s inner turmoil with a complex, gripping performance, with the audience often as uncertain about his motivations as he is about himself.
The drifter—who calls himself “the Last Free Man”—arrives as an answer to Jonah’s inner concerns and questions, lending credence to his more idiosyncratic views and apparently convincing him of an impending apocalyptic event surrounding Y2K. The Last Free Man proudly lives off the grid, sensing Big Brother-levels of conspiracy in most facets of daily life, and forcing Jonah to question his own current method of living, suggesting that his idea of removing his family from ordinary society is the right plan. Marty is less interested in this concept, furtively looking at apartments so that they can move out of her parents’ house, and clearly heavily connected to her church community. Their connection as a couple is never in doubt, but their goals are gradually diverging. His wife and daughter are the only thing keeping Jonah tethered to his job and his home, and, potentially, to reality. After many late-night discussions with the Last Free Man, Jonah’s duality becomes more apparent. Despite his love for them, he would need to separate himself to truly be free. His later incarnation as a bedraggled, unbound mountain man (presumably inspired by the real-life Christopher Knight) is the result of a break with them and all that they represented. And then, of course, there’s the version of Jonah that is stuck on a boat in the open ocean, grappling with God, an even more extreme break from so-called normalcy, and reality.
While for the audience Buster’s Mal Heart is at times difficult, even impossible, to parse, it is handled with such an assured, determined hand that its inscrutability never feels like a failing. The back-and-forth narrative, bold cinematography, riveting performances, and joint themes of apocalyptic paranoia and man’s struggle with duality allow for a strange, contemplative, emotionally resonant film. However, the reveal near the very end is frustratingly familiar, and suddenly the story does not stand out as something different. Admittedly, Smith handles this well-trod plot twist with a fresh take, throwing in a memorably mystifying ending that opens up more questions than anything that came before it, but the fact that this twist element is even used does something to minimize the otherwise unique attitude of the film. It is nevertheless a distinctive second feature, cementing Smith as an exciting new voice in the weird cinema genre.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Buster’s Mal Heart” is an intensely weird film, at times difficult to sort out and process, much less understand. See it anyway. See it for those reasons.”–Bill Goodykoontz, Arizona Republic (contemporaneous)