“Everything is controlled by sphincters, black holes to buttholes!”
So yells a televised “scientist” on a boxy, 90’s T.V. set in one pivotal scene of Sarah Adina Smith’s surreal sci-fi tinged drama, “Buster’s Mal Heart.” The film tracks the journey of three seemingly different men– an exhausted working dad, an unhinged mountain outlaw, and a sailor lost at sea. All are played by Rami Malek (“Mr. Robot”) and the question of their true linkage will be teased throughout the film. However, it’s immediately apparent that one thing unites them: the desire to be “free”. Free of what, exactly? Well, that lack of definition is exactly what makes this eerie epic quite a frustrating watch.
Our emotional entry point into Adina Smith’s peculiar, perspective-shifting tale is Jonah, a world-weary hotel concierge assigned to the night shift. Jonah is out of step with society, his malaise exacerbated by his unrelenting work schedule. A devoted new father, he resents being in debt and under the thumb of larger forces, and wants better for his daughter. His wife, Marty (Kate Lyn Sheil, “House of Cards”), is ready for them to get their own place but Jonah insists they must buy a plot of land and not become shackled to renting fees for an apartment. His fixation on feeling trapped and tired is heightened by the arrival of a nameless drifter to the hotel. The on-edge man rants frantically about Y2K conspiracies and lives sans a credit card or ID.
From there, the interlocked narratives intensify. Jonah becomes increasingly convinced a world ending event called “the inversion” is approaching and he must save his family. Buster, the mountain man, hops from unoccupied vacation home to vacation home while the police spur on a manhunt. The sailor, Jonah, faces death at sea. Yet, amidst these theoretically heightened narratives, the characters remain difficult to connect with, more allegory than man.
In “Buster’s Mal Heart,” deeper motives and philosophies are often obscure. Rami Malek’s characters can radiate kindness in one scene and seething anger in the next, but the inner reasoning and character history are full of gaps the audience must challenge themselves to fill. Malek turns in a nuanced performance, but there’s an emotional distance to this film. Moments of pain and grim comedy land with a light touch that left me cold. It could be argued this subdued style, scenes that evoke uncomfortable chuckles rather than laughter and unease rather than gasps, suits the material. Malek’s characters suffer from some depression over the inescapability of their fates (unending financial struggle, police pursuit, starving at sea) and the film perhaps shares their emotional deadening. Still, even if intentional, that makes for a difficult film to love.
In the end, I’m still asking: Is this film shallow and pretentious, OR is it a satire of how shallow and pretentious “rage against the machine” cultural critiques can be?
It’s not an elegant metaphor, but watching “Buster’s Mal Heart” is emotionally akin to disentangling a knotted set of headphones. It’s largely aggravating but promises rewarding moments of music for the patient audience member. To circle back to the opening quote about butts, such moments of absurd comedy provide rewards and thematic richness for the attentive viewer.
The 90’s milieu of televangelists, rising online conspiracies, and young men raging against the man is vivid. Adina Smith builds a world where every experience, natural or spiritual, is for sale. Rich retirees build cozy, wooden palaces in the mountains near Jonah’s hotel, bringing perfect amenities to experience the sublime in capitalist style. Buster buys phone horoscopes for a dollar a minute and phone sex just to tell the woman that the end of the world is nigh. The sonic background of the film is rich with religious and business schemes aiming to fill lives with meaning, for a price. This media environment is my favorite element of the elusive film, but I can’t say it’s pretensions to cultural critique ever become completely coherent or focused.
In the end, I’m still asking: Is this film shallow and pretentious, OR is it a satire of how shallow and pretentious “rage against the machine” cultural critiques can be? You may want to check out “Buster’s Mal Heart” for Rami Malek alone, or for the lovingly shot mountain vistas. And if you do, let me know what you conclude. I’m confounded, yet intrigued to see if Adina Smith’s future directorial endeavors shed light on the potential substance underneath the overstuffed, jumbled ambitions of “Buster’s Mal Heart.”
“Buster’s Mal Heart” is not rated. 96 minutes. Opening this Friday at select Laemmle theaters, including Playhouse 7, Monica Film Center, and NoHo 7.