The first and only thing to keep in mind when watching Buster’s Mal Heart is that it isn’t Mr. Robot. Yes, Sarah Adina Smith’s film hums with the same thematic anxieties as Sam Esmail’s TV show. Yes, they’re both designed to confound their viewers’ perception of what is and isn’t real in the context of their stories. And yes, they’re both led by the incredibly gifted Rami Malek, whose work as Smith and Esmail’s leading man tends to feel like the glue that holds each together. But Mr. Robot is a broader product with a wider scope, thanks in part to the nature of its medium but mostly to authorial intention. Esmail means for Mr. Robot to have cultural stature. Smith, by contrast, has crafted Buster’s Mal Heart for intimacy.
Buster’s Mal Heart is a single tale split essentially in twain. One half follows Buster, a ragged, unkempt man squatting in mountainside vacation homes in Montana, a man on the lam and sought after by local law enforcement. The other follows Jonah, a hotel concierge slumming it on the late shift, craving a new life where he can spend more quality time with his wife, Marty (Kate Lyn Sheil) and their daughter Roxy (Sukha Belle Potter), subsist on nature’s bounty, and be free of the oppressive, soul-crushing system of capitalist society. Both are played by Malek, as obvious a clue as any that they’re one in the same. Smith, of course, isn’t hiding anything about Buster’s identity, rather the particulars by which he becomes Jonah, and when Buster’s Mal Heart runs along that through line, it’s engagingly cryptic.
When it follows secondary threads about vast government conspiracies and an impending crisis of global and Biblical proportions, it’s stale. A nameless drifter (DJ Qualls) checks into Jonah’s hotel, spouts a whole jumble of nonsense about Y2K and a mysterious event he calls the Second Inversion, and everything goes tits up for Jonah from there in a storm of clichés. The fallout isn’t pretty. It’s often confounding. Mostly, though, it’s just frustrating. The movies like to argue that we’re slaves to order. We’re sheep, unaware that we’re yoked until an outsider opens our eyes for us. It’s not that this idea is unrealistic, but instead that it’s tired, and besides, Buster’s Mal Heart gives Jonah a job as grinding as it is thankless. He doesn’t need Qualls, operating in full-on bug-eyed creep mode, to rouse his dissatisfaction. He’s dissatisfied as is.
The film, by consequence, is in a constant tug of war between Smith’s humanity as a filmmaker and its unwanted gimmickry. Jonah spends a great deal of time considering his sanity, much as we spend a great deal of time trying to unravel the movie’s deceptions. Truth is, Buster’s Mal Heart is elegantly simple at heart. Its complications are easily seen through and completely unnecessary. Admittedly, they’re kind of fun, too: Jonah watches a crackpot pseudo-scientist on TV, illustrating the planet as an onion with two assholes, a “double butt,” a notion so delightfully bizarre that you’ll wish the movie stayed on that wavelength throughout its duration. Normalcy isn’t the film’s Achilles’ heel. Contrivance is. You might even describe it as nostalgic for a period when people were less aware of the forces manipulating their daily routines, and when the fears at its core felt crisper.
If Buster’s Mal Heart’s various banalities restrain it from greatness, Malek’s central performance rises well above them. There’s probably an argument to make that all he does here is repeat the same flourishes he brings to the first and second seasons of Mr. Robot, but Jonah is an entirely different animal from Elliot Alderson, just as Buster’s Mal Heart is an entirely different animal from Mr. Robot. Malek is attuned to the empathy Smith has woven throughout her script, and he walks the edge of Jonah’s pathos, rendering him as tragic, amiable, captivating, warm, troubled, dangerous, and unpredictable; he doesn’t walk a high wire, he weaves an emotional and innately human pastiche. He articulates as little through physicality as possible, favoring the expressive power of his eyes to drill down to the character’s subtext.
It’s remarkable acting from a remarkable actor, a buoying element in a film wrestling with itself. Smith’s skills behind the camera help equally as much as Malek’s contributions in front: She has a great talent for emphasizing isolation, using combinations of close-ups and long shots to stress Jonah’s estrangement from the rest of the world, whether he’s safely wrapped in Marty’s loving embrace or eroding his spirit in the A.M., long after everyone else in the hotel has retired to go to sleep. But technique only carries the picture so far. Shedding the familiar skin of movies long past (a’la Fight Club) would have done the film marvels. Buster’s Mal Heart doesn’t exactly feel conventional, but its insistence on convention, however rare, hamstrings its evocative power. It’s a film that’ll break your heart as much as it’ll scramble your brains.
Director: Sarah Adina Smith
Writer: Sarah Adina Smith
Starring: Rami Malek, Kate Lyn Sheil, DJ Qualls, Lin Shaye, Toby Huss
Release Date: April 28, 2017
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He writes additional words for The Playlist and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.