Anyone who watches Mr. Robot knows how hypnotic Rami Malek’s presence can be. He’s mastered an aura of complicated blankness, his glinting, buggy eyes set deep in his flatly inexpressive face. Malek calls on that same bright, disturbed facade to propel the shambolic, disjointed thriller Buster’s Mal Heart from director Sarah Adina Smith. A head-scratcher with a twisty split narrative, the film’s an uneven study of one man’s descent into madness, held together by the force of Malek’s commanding distance.
Malek plays Jonah, a man caught in the belly of the whale of his own messed up mind. We dance through a few different times, all of it set in the late nineties, just before the advent of the dreaded fizzle Y2K. First we meet Buster, Jonah in mountain man mode, with an immense, grizzled beard and hoser touque, squatting in vacant cottages in some scenic rural corner or other. In his earlier life, Jonah is a family man, married with a devout wife and daughter, working nights at a hotel. In some other time/zone, Jonah is in a boat, adrift on the ocean, the metaphor made manifest, floating out past sanity. The question is how did Jonah become Buster, and where’s this unwieldy ship headed?
When he isn’t flipping all the photos upside down on a cottage wall, Buster calls into radio and TV talk shows, ranting about “the inversion.” He warns of a world-ripping shift when the energy of the universe reverses, changing from expansion to collapse. It’s a yarn he picked up from a stranger he meets at the hotel, a paranoid drifter ably sketched by DJ Qualls. The drifter, dubbed The Last Free Man in the script, is chock full of Y2K warnings of impending collapse. Trapped in his own oppressive existence, Jonah latches onto the stranger’s ravings, gradually becoming unmoored from his family and job.
Buster’s Mal Heart has things to say about mindless obeisance to religion and society, though it’s too scattershot in its approach to muster much coherent. Sometimes it’s a philosophical, time-shifting mind-bender, sometimes it’s a strangely hollow, emotionless thriller. Rami Malek landed the part of Buster/Jonah just before he was cast in Mr. Robot. His breakthrough role casts a large shadow here, making key plot points an easy guess in the early going. Sarah Adina Smith’s direction is deft at moving between the timelines, and captures a certain stately weirdness. But her script leaves gaping holes in these characters’ lives and motivations. Billed as a cross between Donnie Darko and Bad Santa, it’s more a blueprint for mindfuckery than either of those two deeper films. It’s interesting. It’s just hard to care.
As they close in on Buster, the sheriff finds one of his sculptures hanging in the window of a cottage. It looks something like an apple, radiant lines of aura circling from top to bottom, the opposed holes funnelling energy through the hollow core. “An onion with two assholes,” the sheriff observes. A metaphor for the inversion, or a bifurcated but empty protagonist? Who knows? In the end, all we’re left with is a great Rami Malek performance, and a film that disappears up its own asshole.
Buster’s Mal Heart opens this Friday, May 12th at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, and is playing in limited release in the US. For more info on the TIFF screening, see here.