By Patrick Feutz
You know things are bad when they can only be explained through the prism of a Y2K conspiracy theory. That’s how Rami Malek’s Jonah feels in the tripartite yin-yang of a mystery film Buster’s Mal Heart, seeing more reason to believe in loony late night public access TV programming, a pre-Internet dial-a-psychic, and, perhaps most damningly of all, the anti-establishment ravings of a mysterious IT specialist played by DJ Qualls than he does real life.
Across the nonlinear plot of Sarah Adina Smith’s film, we’re treated to three versions of Jonah, primarily as a devoted husband and father who works nights at a remote Montana hotel, as a scraggly mountain man who squats in empty Montana vacation homes, and lastly a bedraggled castaway floating in a rowboat on the open ocean. The mountain man version, an infamous crank caller nicknamed “Buster” by appreciative radio hosts, commands the most inspection from us because he’s clearly an older, broken version of the depressed hotel concierge. All three express the same psychological dilemma, the feeling of being adrift and downtrodden, craving control. So we settle into the familiar position of questioning how Jonah got from A to B, and let his castaway version play out conventionally as a metaphor for some eventual tragedy along the way. It’s a comfortable enough position to be in, but when you think you’ve nailed the drift of Smith’s screenplay, she doubles back again, leaving you struggling to regain your balance on an ever shakier foundation.
Smith is a low key director, and she finds success in ever so slightly lulling us into false assumptions before pulling the rug out from under us. The weirdness begins before the narrative starts in earnest, with the very first image of two flickering silhouettes sharing Jonah’s rowboat on the ocean. It instantly opens up the discussion to parallel universes, or alternate realities, or, y’know… something like that. More importantly, it doesn’t show its hand by hinting at which of the subsequent versions of Jonah we meet is the real, or primary, version of him.
If there’s anything resembling a traditional narrative, it resides with hotel concierge Jonah. He and his wife Marty (Kate Lyn Sheil) eke out a meager living, having both overcome difficult pasts, and Jonah harbors an unrealistic dream of buying land and becoming self-sufficient. He’s suffering from insomnia, and one night a nerdy conspiracy theorist (Qualls) arrives without ID to request a room, the whole time spouting anti-system rhetoric and predicting an event known as The Inversion at the dawn of the 21st century. Things go south shortly after that, with Jonah becoming more depressed and conflicted over the pragmatism of his dream. The rest is left to our interpretation of the three Jonahs and how they tie together.
Smith’s misdirection is also made more bearable by Malek’s pained performance and occasional jolts of off-the-wall humor. It’s hard not to fall into clichés when describing Malek’s skills as an actor at this point. With his wiry frame, sharp jaw, and eyes simultaneously haunting and menacing, he’s tailor-made for bugging out, but his intensity stays tamped down, the few fireworks we do see coming from obviously slow burning fuses. Any time he’s confronted with a new twist, it’s hard not to crumble a little alongside him, so fully does he inhabit his three roles.
With Buster’s Mal Heart, Smith follows in the footsteps of fellow idiosyncratic filmmakers like Lynch, Aronofsky, Inarritu, and Nolan, crafting a mind-bending puzzler that steadily ups the dread but is content to let you have the final say, providing plenty of tantalizing fodder for a solid post-viewing lobby argument. Her blending of the tale of Jonah with pre-Internet ‘90s paranoia has an undeniably uncanny effect. In practically writing her own genuine tall tale, Smith imbues the American legendarium with the Biblical proportions its component parts always aspired to. In perhaps its greatest twist of all, Buster’s Mal Heart will have you waxing nostalgic for a time when chain emails were still in their infancy and the oral tradition was carried exclusively through fuzzy local news reports.
Buster's Mal Heart is screening in the UICA Movie Theater June 2nd - June 15th 2017.