‘Buster’s Mal Heart’ Review: Leaves Audiance Stranded Out In Open Waters
Teeming with mystery from start to finish, Buster’s Mal Heart – written and directed by Sarah Adina Smith – tells the story of one man’s life in three, interconnected parts. Timelines are blurred as we follow Buster (Rami Malek), a homeless mountain man living in empty vacation homes in a small town in Montana as he remembers his former life, when he was known as Jonah, while also following his visions of being lost at sea in a small rowboat.
The film, which takes place in the late ’90s, begins as Buster evades the local police force through a mountainous forrest. We learn quickly that Buster has been breaking into empty vacation homes for shelter during the winter. While physically harming no one, Buster makes frequent calls into the local radio station to spew his theory about the impending apocalypse of Y2K. His manic phone calls and his home invasions make Buster a local legend.
While Buster’s story unfolds, we also learn of his former life – a life before his long hair and scraggly beard. He was once Jonah, a hard working concierge with a wife, a young daughter, and judgmental in-laws. Saving up money to buy a “parcel of land” and to become “totally self-sufficient,” Jonah works the night shift, where he often doesn’t see anyone but the televangelist speaking of the end-days on a static television.
Jonah’s wife, Marty (Kate Lyn Sheil), is supportive of Jonah but worries his sleep deprivation has effected his mood at home and will made him more violent. Heeding her warning, Jonah asks his manager to switch shifts but his request is swiftly denied. Jonah accepts his manager’s decree and works another night shift, only on this night, an odd looking, nameless drifter (DJ Qualls) appears and asks for a free night in the hotel. He also begins to warn Jonah of Y2K and tells him about the only way to save himself.
While both narratives unfold, scenes of Buster drifting in open waters occasionally appear. In Spanish, Buster demands that god kill him. The Buster in the boat is nothing like the Buster in the woods, and even less like Jonah with his family.
These three narratives, which are mostly unconnected through out the film, are all strong on their own but, when put together, make for a confusing watch. An entire movie of Buster breaking into empty vacation homes while trying to avoid the cops and survive the winter would make for an exciting movie on its own. Watching Jonah slowly loose his mind at the hands of sleep deprivation –although similar to Malek’s character on Mr. Robot – is a story that also could make for an interesting film. But when put together, the film becomes largely symbolic and less reliant on a coherent telling of any one storyline.
Buster’s Mal Heart deals often with religious symbolism and it’s themes draw heavily from the Bible’s story of Jonah and the Whale. The scenes at sea most obviously make this reference – Buster regularly says that he is in the belly of the whale. But Jonah, at the hotel, also denies his destiny and works against the natural order of things, or god – the very defiance that landed Jonah in the belly of the whale in the Bible.
The diegetic sounds and cinematography are both excellent and make the film feel rich and deep. The score, on the other hand, was strange and often too grand for the frankness of Malek and the Montana setting. Malek, Sheil, and Qualls all gave admirable performances but Suhka Belle Potter, who plays Jonah and Marty’s daughter, steals ever scene she is in. A young child, it is hard to believe her performance is much different than her behavior off-screen but regardless, she plays a great, mumbling and heart-warming toddler.
Smith’s attempt to make an allegorical film is noted but not at all subtle. The conflicting narratives distract from any deep meaning that she is trying to display. Buster’s Mal Heart needs a revelation or some sort of an epiphany because without it, the film is simply a smattering of beautiful images, unanswered mysteries, and scattered but strong acting performances that all seem to be missing a link.
Buster’s Mal Heart opens theatrically in New York City and Los Angeles on April 28.
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