Film Review: Buster's Mal Heart

An intriguing mindbender of an indie thriller, featuring a well-rounded performance by Rami Malek.
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So many films have been made about men broken down by society, but it may have taken a female filmmaker to find a new way into that subject. Written and directed by Sarah Adina Smith, Buster’s Mal Heart explores said territory in a far more intriguing way than we’ve seen in the past. At times, it’s somewhat frustrating for its efforts, but it mostly pays off.

In the first few minutes of the film, we watch Rami Malek (“Mr. Robot”) running across a snow-covered landscape, chased into a cave by armed authorities. This fellow on the lam is Buster, a reclusive mountain man who has become somewhat of an urban myth while evading the law for many years.

We then go back ten days to watch a far more haggard Buster—a less recognizable Malek with long hair and beard, looking more like a member of grunge band Soundgarden—as he’s settling into one of the abandoned vacation homes he uses for shelter. We also see Buster in a similar state sitting in a boat in the middle of a body of water, clearly starving. We’ll get back to that.

We then witness another version of this man as he works the night shift at a desolate motel in the middle of nowhere. This is Jonah, a family man with a beautiful wife (Kate Lyn Sheil) and an adorable young daughter (Sukha Belle Potter). Money is tight, and Jonah needs to put up with the late-night hours and his annoying boss, although he’d much rather spend time with his family. One night, a mysterious man, played by DJ Qualls, shows up at the motel looking for a place to crash. The two of them start plotting a way to make money by robbing the motel’s other tenants, even though it’s obvious Jonah can’t trust him.

The above is the simplified version of a fairly complex story at the core of Smith’s film, which uses a non-linear narrative cutting between Buster and Jonah’s different incarnations. Proving herself a capable editor, Smith cuts between these disparate moments fairly fluidly, leaving you wondering for much of the running time how these pieces fit together.

Filming between the first and second seasons of “Mr. Robot,” Malek brings the same A-game to this role that he displays on the show. Jonah may not seem like much of a stretch, since we’ve seen him playing a silent and sullen individual before, but his scenes with the irresistible scene-stealer who plays his young daughter are quite impressive.

The film’s color palette is somewhat bland, given its low-budget roots, and at times the non-linear storytelling threatens to be the movie’s complete undoing. Are the scenes of Buster in a boat a vision or dream he’s having? Did they happen before or after his current state?

One of the film’s more mindboggling and frustrating twists—more or less explaining what we’ve been watching—happens towards the end, as Buster’s luck starts to run out. After running into an elderly couple who arrive home as he’s raiding their fridge, Buster holds them hostage until he’s discovered, which leads to a return to the opening as he’s chased into a cave. 

Unfortunately, the ending is relatively underwhelming, considering everything leading up to it, and Smith leaves a few too many loose ends. This may seem like a film that would reward repeat viewing, but it doesn’t necessarily leave you wanting to sit through it again.

Buster’s Mal Heart isn’t a perfect movie, and it certainly won’t be for everyone, since it’s often such a quiet and confounding film. Still, it shows a distinctive approach to movie storytelling and keeps you invested, mainly because Malek is such a compelling actor.

Click here for cast and crew information.