As I continue to try to find the time/procrastinate on seeing The Promise (2017), I did manage to find some time to check out a TIFF darling starring the Mr. Robot guy. Sarah Adina Smith’s Buster’s Mal Heart (2017) is a film that unexpectedly makes me sympathize and even empathize with the “weirdos” who stand on city street corners with cardboard signs impassionately preaching about some kind of doom or boon. Although the movie is not literally about this, I like to think that my reaction to this film is similar to being approached by one of these people on the street: jarring confusion, followed by hours of pensive thought, ultimately coming to the conclusion that it was all just hogwash.
This a bit of an exaggeration mind you, as at the core of BMH there’s brilliance in what Smith is able to accomplish. Rami Malek plays a man who’s name isn’t actually Buster, but Jonah, a regular Joe working the graveyard shift at a hotel to support his wife (Kate Lyn Sheil) and their daughter. Eventually though, he becomes a hairy nomad who wanders the mountains and gains the nickname of Buster from the media because he frequently calls radio stations to warn about Y2k and an event called “The Inversion.” The story is told non-linearly, so there’s an even back and forth between Buster as a sort of wandering doomsday prophet and Jonah the family man. This isn’t always the easiest way to tell a story, but here it works very well. The film starts with a very intense police manhunt for Buster, intercut with innocent scenes of Jonah at his job and with his family. The stark contrast between both versions of the same person immediately heightens the curiosity and intrigue in this man’s story, and the time we spend with either side helps us learn more about the other.
The pacing and clever filmic storytelling complements this style greatly. It’s honestly a testament to good filmmaking when I say that I never felt bored with this character doing very mundane things. You’re given exactly as much time as you need to with each “version” of Buster (including a mysterious third setting of Buster on a lifeboat). Despite the non-linear framework, the plot unfolds naturally via transitions utilizing audio and either contrasting or identically framed shots, which in turn leads to very organic character development and a dramatically compelling story. Obviously this all would have been less effectual if not for Rami Malek’s beyond-amazing acting, but every shot complements Malek’s surreal descent into an apocalyptic-based mental breakdown so well that it feels as real as something this absurd can. Buster didn’t become Buster overnight. It was a slow and gradual process that makes for a good film from beginning to… uh… about right before the end.
Now I can’t talk about the ending in a review, but basically it’s one of those very artsy mindfuck endings meant to simultaneously bookend loose ends in the story while raising questions in some forced attempt to be deep, lasting, and meaningful. It’s a real shame, because the story at its core is so good and so interesting I would almost call it brilliant. However, when you realize the ultimate grand design behind everything you can’t help but feel slighted. Smith threw a lot of esoteric shit at the wall at once with this one and hoped it would stick; some of it is well established while the rest is too subtle or, worst of all, so out of nowhere that it basically ruins what makes the good stuff so great. The plot plays out too realistically for an ending like this to mesh, and it makes you realize how utterly pointless certain scenes and important characters are because they only exist to set up a motif that will only be addressed again in earnest in the third act right before the epilogue.
Even with the disappointing ending, Buster’s Mal Heart is still a worthwhile film. At its core there’s a great film and I really did enjoy the ride for a majority of its run time. Sure it tried a little too hard, but boy does Rami Malek absolutely kill it. He’s got the film on his back, and if Sarah Adina Smith can bring in more creativity then I hope I can see the two of them team up again for another dynamite work.