It’s easy to point to the kinds of movies, literary works, and filmmakers that inspired writer/director/editor Sarah Adina Smith to make the surrealist black comedy Buster’s Mal Heart, but those cultural touchstones are wrapped up nicely in an extraordinary story with shockingly emotional overtones. Films as strange as Buster’s Mal Heart often coast by on weirdness, ambiguity, and artistic merit alone, but Smith and her committed cast and crew have also set out to make a keenly perceptive film about the nature of depression. Sure, sometimes it can feel like watching the Coen Brothers attempting to adapt any number of Chuck Palahniuk works and Old Testament parables simultaneously, but that only attempts to describe the tone, and not the emotions the film represents.
The year is 1999. The world is caught up in potential Y2K hysteria, and Jonah (Rami Malek) is reaching his breaking point. He has a loving wife (Kate Lyn Sheil) and an adorable two-year old daughter, but at home he’s constantly dealing with his unpleasant, pious in-laws and at work he’s forced to work lengthy, thankless overnights. He works as a concierge at a barely used hotel on the outskirts of a Montana community used primarily as a place for rich people to take vacations at their summer homes. One night, starved for anything to keep him awake, he entertains the crazy ramblings of a conspiracy theory spouting drifter (DJ Qualls). The drifter, who never gives Jonah his real name, spouts off a bunch of nonsense about a coming “inversion,” glitches in “the machine,” and claims to be a prophet. The pair will strike up a destructive friendship that leads to Jonah eventually losing his sanity, becoming a hirsute, unclean mountain man – known to locals as Buster – who survives off breaking into vacation homes.
Smith bounces back and forth between Jonah’s past and two potential versions of his present. Trust me when I say that statement makes more sense as Buster’s Mal Heart unfolds and shows all of the events that caused Jonah’s breakdown. By the opening scene where Smith begins following Jonah, the character has already visibly and narratively reached a point of complete exhaustion. It doesn’t matter if and when Smith switches between the past and the present throughout her film because the weariness remains the same regardless of Jonah’s actions and mindset. The one constant is exhaustion.
This sleepwalking sort of malaise is exemplified by Malek’s best performance to date. Even when the audience knows Jonah has done something wrong, they can take a look at the constantly pained look on his face and know that he’s a man struggling to come to terms with events he can’t properly talk about. The surreal nature of Jonah’s out-there beliefs once they arise are secondary to how these beliefs mask an all too realistic pain and sadness. Surreality is often used primarily for comedic or horrific effect, but Smith wisely allows Malek a lot of leeway to plumb the emotional depths of Jonah and find meaning in the potentially meaningless.
Smith and her crew give Malek and the rest of the cast plenty to work with throughout Buster’s Mal Heart. Narratively, the film can be read as a modern-day mind-bender, an old school religious parable (where the parallels don’t end at allusions to Jonah and the whale), or most simply as a tale of a man pushed too far. None of the readings are wrong, and as long as the individual cast members choose a reading and stick to it, Smith allows them to go off in their own directions to create a world that feels both chaotic and realistic. No one in Buster’s Mal Heart appears to be on the same page emotionally or mentally, but they all inhabit the exact same world, and it’s a world we all identify immediately with despite any amount of wackadoo conspiratorial babbling.
Visually, Buster’s Mal Heart is also something to behold. Smith, production designer Alexis Rose, and cinematographer Shaheen Seth pack every frame with subtly detailed visual splendour. It’s a mundane world – one often filled with negative spaces, like the one below the hotel check-in desk that looks like a black, lifeless void – but there’s always something to look at, even in moments where Jonah lies adrift on the ocean in a rowboat like his biblical namesake. Jonah often looks to be swimming in the world around him, and his often banal surroundings look like they want to swallow him whole. This isn’t accomplished with any flashy or hokey stylistic trickery, but instead with rigidly thought out set-ups that elucidate the enormity of Jonah’s current mental situation. It’s as great as a soul sucking world could possibly be captured on film without boring the audience to tears.
Buster’s Mal Heart wears its influences and allusions on its sleeve proudly, but also remains uniquely unclassifiable in its own right. Even without Malek’s riveting leading performance, Buster’s Mal Heart would be worth checking out on the strengths of its narrative and visual acumen alone. But with Malek giving his all to the production and to Smith’s vision, it’s great to see their efforts wrapped up in such an idiosyncratic package.
Buster’s Mal Heart opens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto on Friday, May 12, 2017 and at the Mayfair Theatre in Ottawa on Friday, May 19.
Check out the trailer for Buster’s Mal Heart:
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