An unusual movie like “Buster’s Mal Heart” demands an unusual star, and Rami Malek proves an ideal fit for Sarah Adina Smith’s sophomore feature. Despite being both a captivating screen presence and a tremendous actor, Malek isn’t a conventional leading man — but as his work on the critically acclaimed cult favorite TV series “Mr. Robot” has already demonstrated, conventional isn’t always the best way to go.
Although Malek signed on to “Buster” prior to “Robot,” his first leading role in a feature will only benefit from the exposure he’s gained over the past year. Deliberately confounding and deeply strange, the quasi-experimental “Buster” wouldn’t be an easy sell under any circumstance, but those qualities overlap with “Robot” in enough ways that an enterprising distributor should find an audience willing to give the film a try, especially on VOD or streaming.
Like Smith’s promising but little-seen debut, “The Midnight Swim,” “Buster” is built around a mystery. But while the first film dealt with three adult sisters following the death of their mother, “Buster” focuses on Malek’s title character in two distinct timelines. When first seen, Buster is racing through the snowy Montana wilderness as police officers shoot at him from the distance. He’s been hiding out in various unoccupied homes in the area, dialing into radio talk shows with expletive-filled rants about Y2K, and looking every inch the crazy loner with wild unkempt hair and a full beard.
And yet somehow, not too long before this, Buster was known as Jonah. The comparatively straight-laced Jonah had a wife (Kate Lyn Sheil) and a precocious young daughter (Sukha Belle Potter), who he spoke to in both Spanish and English. He worked as a hotel concierge on the night shift and aspired to get out of his wife’s family house and away from his religious fanatic mother-in-law (Lin Shaye).
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What exactly caused Jonah’s transformation into Buster, and what happened to his family, are the driving questions in Smith’s elliptical and frequently surreal narrative. At a certain point Jonah meets an unnamed man (DJ Qualls) convinced Y2K will bring about the end of society — or at least something called “the great inversion.” This mysterious stranger checks into the hotel and keeps insinuating himself into Jonah’s life without invitation.
And just to make things even murkier, either Jonah or Buster — or both — have persistent visions of being adrift at sea in a lifeboat. Perhaps that’s reality and the other strands are simply dreams or memories? (The “Mr. Robot” comparisons won’t work entirely to the film’s benefit here, as one key plot twist mirrors a significant turn in the series almost too uncomfortably.)
As in “Midnight Swim,” Smith leaves many key points open to interpretation, but between the two films it’s clear that exploring mental illness on screen is an area of keen interest to the young filmmaker, who also serves as her own editor. Ditto an affinity for elegant, artfully-composed cinematography — once again provided by her husband and d.p. Shaheen Seth — and disquieting sound design by Paula Fairfield.
As for the cast, while both Qualls and Sheil have brief standout moments, and young Potter practically steals the show in a performance that feels entirely extemporaneous, this is clearly Malek’s vehicle start-to-finish.
Firmly in the tradition of actors like Christopher Walken, Jeff Goldblum, Michael Shannon, or even Peter Lorre, who perform in their own transfixing rhythms, Malek is thoroughly convincing as a man at odds with himself. Whether he’s playfully interacting with his wife and daughter, or delivering a madman’s rant to thin air, Malek has the range to be utterly charming, utterly creepy, or both at once.
Even with Malek’s fine work to draw in those curious enough to brave the film’s oddball trip, “Buster” is a distinctly niche prospect. But it also suggests that if Smith ever wants to try her hand at something more mainstream she’s likely up to the task. Sci-fi would be a natural genre to explore, though one darkly comic and rather chilling extended sequence late in the film — when Buster holds an elderly couple (Sandra Ellis Lafferty and Nicholas Pryor) hostage in their own house — suggests she could bring a fresh eye to the tired home invasion thriller.