REVIEW: Buster’s Mal Heart

25 04 2017

Fantastic Fest

I don’t know why it took me over six months to connect Sarah Adina Smith’s headscratcher “Buster’s Mal Heart” to Richard Kelly’s cult classic “Donnie Darko,” but alas, the two have linked in my head. Both are films that it’s possible to show to a group of people, all of whom agree on the content shown yet diverge widely over whether it’s genius or madness. In such debates, I usually tend to fall somewhere in the middle – neither pole has a monopoly on good idea – and this instance is no different.

Smith puts star Rami Malek to chilling use as Buster, a soft-spoken family man who ends up working a “The Shining”-esque gig as the night desk man at a small hotel. The film does not just play on reserves of feeling carried over from his similarly reserved work in “Mr. Robot,” either. It’s a sensitive performance that reflects a quiet, shy man whose desire to please crosses paths with a grifting loon with an intent to deceive. Said shady figure, DJ Qualls’ Brown, spews apocalyptic rhetoric about a coming day of reckoning known as “The Inversion.” Whether out of boredom, politeness or curisoity, Buster never shuts down Brown’s babbling.

But eventually, tolerating Brown’s presence has consequences. While we witness his inability to rid himself of the negative influence, Smith intercuts glimpses of two other storylines involving Buster – or is it just Malek? One is a drifter making himself at home in the winter vacation houses of the rich during off-season. The other is a sunburned Jesus-looking fellow floating the open sea in a small boat. They’re connected, of course, but Smith never convincingly sells their tenuous linkage.

Standard linear, narrative cohesion is not the endgame, though even a more complex thematic relationship seems like a stretch. “Buster’s Mal Heart” stretches for cosmic, spiritual connections that I just couldn’t sense on the wavelength where I felt like the film operated. That does not mean they do not exist, nor does it discount the intriguing main section with Buster and Brown. B

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