Toronto 2016 Review: BUSTER'S MAL HEART is Wonderfully Weird and Weirdly Wonderful
Rami Malek is having a moment. As the star of one of the most popular shows on television (Mr. Robot), Malek is likely getting big movie offers on a regular basis. So the choice to star as a bearded weirdo shitting in pots on kitchen counters might seem like an odd decision. Odd is indeed a good word to describe Sarah Adina Smith's latest feature Buster's Mal Heart. So are fantastic, thought-provoking, off-beat, and hilarious. This is a bizarre film – but one that weasels right into your heart and builds itself a ramshackle little weasel nest.
While Malek's bearded character (aka Buster) is indeed seen early on taking part in the aforementioned kitchen counter business, it's not entirely clear who or when Buster really is. What we know is that he is a mountain man in rural Montana who subsides off of breaking into uninhabited vacation homes and wreaking all kinds of devilish havoc on them. This includes flipping artwork upside down, scratching on windows, and calling 900 numbers.
We flip between wild man Buster and his mild-mannered counterpart Jonah, a struggling husband and father who pays the bills by working the nightshift at a mostly quiet hotel. Jonah and Buster seem to be one and the same (minus the beard). Though we don't know for sure, we can only assume Buster is a vision of what Jonah's future holds after some sort of mental break. Just to make things more complicated, there is a third Buster who we see from time to time hopelessly adrift at sea.
Things get complicated for Jonah when a man (DJ Qualls) shows up at his hotel late one night asking for a room but unable to provide ID or a credit card. Jonah tells the man he can't help. But his kind-hearted nature won't allow himself to kick the man out into the cold and he starts listening to this man's wild-eyed rants about the coming apocalypse that is Y2k. The man, who refuses to give Jonah his name, continues to show up at the hotel from time to time. As he and Jonah chat more and more about the government's connection to said upcoming Y2k apocalypse, parallels become obvious between the man and Buster's ramblings and we begin to see signs of what might just be the missing connection between Jonah and Buster.
If that all sounds relatively straight forward, it's not. It might not even be right. Buster's Mal Heart is a very stylishly told narrative that draws a lot on throwing questions out there without providing much in the way of answers. But it does that wonderfully well. Jonah is a fascinating character and his interactions with wife (played by Kate Lyn Sheil) and her parents are realistic and completely relatable. So trying to understand why this relatable character turns into the much less relatable Buster (if indeed that is what happens) is an engaging highway on which to travel.
It's also important to understand that there is a brilliantly wry sense of humor that prevails throughout the film. There's a rule somewhere that says no one is allowed to choose Y2k as a topic unless it's with a healthy dose of comedy and Smith has stuck to that edict. This is not an Art film with a capital A, but it has surely sprung forth from the mind of an artist with a real penchant for painting an abstract narrative from a weird and wonderful palette. It's pretty easy to see why Rami Malek said yes.