×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Toronto Film Review: ‘Buster’s Mal Heart’

With:
Rami Malek, DJ Qualls, Kate Lyn Sheil, Sukha Belle Potter, Toby Huss, Lin Shaye, Mark Kelly, Bruce Bundy, Teresa Yenque, Sandra Ellis Lafferty, Nicholas Pryor.

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5173032/

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).

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.

Toronto Film Review: 'Buster's Mal Heart'

Reviewed at WME Screening Room, Sept. 6, 2016. (In Toronto Film Festival -- Vanguard.) Running time: 98 MIN.

Production: A Gamechanger Films presentation of a Snowfort Pictures/Everything Is Everything production. Produced by Jonako Donley, Travis Stevens. Executive producers, Mynette Louie, Julie Parker Benello, Dan Cogan, Geralyn Dreyfous, Wendy Ettinger, Samuel T. Bauer. Co-executive producers, Erika Kelton, Regina K. Scully, Lesley Ann Skillen.

Crew: Director-writer-editor, Sarah Adina Smith. Camera (color), Shaheen Seth; music, Mister Squinter; production designer, Alexis Rose; costume designer, Emily Batson.

With: Rami Malek, DJ Qualls, Kate Lyn Sheil, Sukha Belle Potter, Toby Huss, Lin Shaye, Mark Kelly, Bruce Bundy, Teresa Yenque, Sandra Ellis Lafferty, Nicholas Pryor.

More Film

  • Toy Story 4 Forky

    ‘Toy Story 4’ Tops Studios’ TV Ad Spending

    In this week’s edition of the Variety Movie Commercial Tracker, powered by TV ad measurement and attribution company iSpot.tv, Disney Pixar claims the top spot in spending with “Toy Story 4.” Ads placed for the animated film had an estimated media value of $5.53 million through Sunday for 1,073 national ad airings on 38 networks. [...]

  • Nicolas Cage

    Film News Roundup: Nicolas Cage's 'Jiu Jitsu' Obtains Cyprus Support

    In today’s film news roundup, Cyprus is backing Nicolas Cage’s “Jiu Jitsu”; “The Nanny” and “Amityville 1974” are moving forward; “Milk” is returning to theaters; and Garrett Hedlund’s “Burden” is getting distribution. CYPRUS REBATE Nicolas Cage’s “Jiu Jitsu” has become the first international film to use Cyprus’ new tax credit-rebate program by filming entirely in [...]

  • Zhao Tao

    Zhao Tao Gets Candid in Kering's Shanghai Women in Motion Showcase Interview

    Zhao Tao is one of the most recognizable faces in Chinese art cinema thanks to her longtime collaboration with director Jia Zhangke, whom she married in 2012. From 2000’s “Platform” to last year’s “Ash is Purest White,” her work has plumbed the moral depths of modern China and brought stories of the country’s drastic change [...]

  • Skyline on the Huangpu River with

    Chinese-American Film Festival Seeks Particular Dialog

    With U.S.-China ties at an ever-sinking low, the Chinese-American Film and TV Festival on Tuesday pledged to improve communications between the two countries —  at a Chinese language-only press conference Tuesday that had few foreigners present. Most attendees who took to the stage to give congratulatory speeches that seemed more intent on heaping praise upon [...]

  • Murder Mystery

    Netflix Reveals Record-Breaking Stats for Sandler-Aniston 'Murder Mystery' Flick

    “Murder Mystery,” the latest Adam Sandler film to debut on Netflix, broke viewing records on the streaming service, the company revealed Tuesday. The film, which is co-headlined by Jennifer Aniston, was seen by close to 30.9 million households in its first 3 days, according to a tweet sent out Tuesday afternoon. 🚨ADAM SANDLER AND JENNIFER [...]

  • Agents Accuse Writers Guild of Refusing

    Writers Guild 'Plans to Respond' to Agents' Proposal as Frustration Mounts

    In a sign of increasing frustration, Hollywood agents have accused the Writers Guild of America of foot-dragging in the bitter two-month dispute. “It has become clear as more days pass that the Guild is not interested in making a deal,” said the negotiating committee for the agents in statement issued Tuesday. “Over the past year, [...]

  • Jermaine Fowler arrives at the 69th

    Jermaine Fowler to Co-Star With Eddie Murphy in 'Coming 2 America' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Jermaine Fowler is set to play one of the leads opposite Eddie Murphy in Paramount’s sequel “Coming 2 America,” sources tell Variety. “Hustle & Flow” helmer Craig Brewer is on board to direct the pic with the studio planning an August 7, 2020 release. Plot details of “Coming 2 America” are unknown, as are the [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content