Buster's Mal Heart
Starring Rami Malek, DJ Qualls, Kate Lyn Sheil, Lin Shaye,
The one word that best describes writer/director/editor Sarah Adina Smith’s latest film Buster’s Mal Heart would be “frustrating”. Her sophomore feature is a perplexing setup that’s only really got one thing going for it, Mr. Robot’s Remi Malek. His performance as a confused and often deranged young man suffering from loss and inescapable circumstances is about the only reason not to shut this film off. Smith describes her latest as a cross between Donnie Darko and Bad Santa, and while I have no idea what she is referring to, a better comparison would be Manchester By the Sea meets The X Files.
Jonah (Malek) works nights at a local hotel in a small city, nestled away from modern civilization in Montana. It’s pre-Y2K, the husband/father struggles to earn a living and support his family living with the in-laws. Jonah was homeless before he met Marty (Sheil), and through the church, they built a life together. Flashforward five years and we see two men: One is referred to as Buster the Mountain Man who invades abandoned homes for survival, never stealing or taking anything but food and clothing. The other is lost at sea, only traveling where the tide or wind take him. How did Jonah become these two different men, and his life get so derailed?
This cerebral drama isn’t in the hands of a capable director/editor who can welcome the audience into the world with any sort of logic.
Smith as her own editor here is the first real mistake. Very few writer/directors can navigate their own material in the editing room. Smith needed an extra pair of eyes to help more clearly decipher the material she uses. It’s the editing that drives the picture away from logic as there are varying lines of reality being shown to the audience at any given time. This cerebral drama isn’t in the hands of a capable director/editor who can welcome the audience into the world with any sort of logic. The pace is somber, mostly taken place in flashback at the hotel where Jonah works. His interactions with Qualls (All About Steve) feel exactly like an X-File where Mulder gets trapped in his own head.
An hour into the film, the audience still doesn’t understand how Jonah transitioned to Buster the Mountain Man. So, our mind begins to wander and expect the worst. Outside of his award winning performance on Mr. Robot, we haven’t seen much of what Malek can do in feature film beyond his reoccurring role in Night at the Museum. The 35-year-old has eyes that look like they might explode with tears at any moment and that’s the power he has over the audience. I wanted more from nearly every element of this film. More from horror actress Lin Shaye (Insidious) finally in a drama, more explanation for digitally blinking characters, and much less from the bad wig and beard stuck on Malek.
A frustrating cerebral drama that’s a failure on nearly every level aside from Malek’s performance.