Buster’s Mal Heart (2017)


It has not been a secret that two authors I absolutely adore are Thomas Pynchon and Franz Kafka. There are a number of reasons why I love them, but one is how they create an uneasy sense of paranoia, and their use of their main characters being an individual in an unforgiving world. There have been many films that subscribe to the same narrative philosophy, and they can be truly wonderful. One such film is Buster’s Mal Heart, one of the most extraordinary films of the year, and one that is as brilliant as it is complex.

Jonah (Rami Malek) is a lonely man. He shouldn’t have to be lonely – he’s got a wife (Kate Lyn Sheil) and a daughter, and a solid job as a night-shift concierge at a hotel. What he doesn’t realize is that no one is supposed to take such strain, and the combination of a lack of sleep, loneliness, and detachment from his family takes its toll on Jonah, and he starts to become paranoid and distant from reality. A chance encounter with a sinister, nameless man (DJ Qualls) ends with Jonah experiencing a tragedy, and quite literally walking out of his life, never to be heard from again.

In the present day, Jonah is a reclusive mountain man, living in the Montana landscape, breaking into empty vacation homes and living the lives of the absent owners. Dubbed by the media as “Buster”, Jonah becomes something of a myth, a fearful figure that roams the countryside much like a monster, with people fearful that they will encounter him. While he is harmless, he is still completely mad and his presence (or rather, the presence of his absence, serving as a spectre in the lives of many people around the area) creates the exact kind of paranoia that drove Jonah into madness, and forced him to become the figure now known as Buster.

Rami Malek is quite an actor – I remember watching him years ago on the ill-fated The War at Home, and in the entertaining but forgettable Night at the Museum film series. I was pleasantly surprised to see him receive the role of a lifetime in Mr Robot, that garnered him legions of new fans and a wave of popularity and recognition of which absolutely any actor would be envious. It was only a matter of time before Malek was given a starring role in a film, and it makes sense that an independent surrealist thriller such as Buster’s Mal Heart would appeal to his sensibilities – much like Mr Robot, it is a Kafka-esque meditation on humanity, with huge doses of paranoia and the vague sense of the otherworldly being present. In fact, Buster’s Mal Heart seems like a logical film for Malek, because he occupies the position of a Kafka protagonist perfectly – he is ordinary, but still memorable, as well as being likable, but just slightly sinister himself.

Jonah/Buster is a complex role, and Malek rises to the occasion perfectly – playing both sides of the character could not be an easy task, but Malek pulled it off perfectly, playing them as if they were completely different characters, but retaining just enough of the other in each, so that we are able to see the early signs of Buster in Jonah, and the lingering traits of Jonah within Buster. It is a subtle and nuanced performance, and I sincerely hope that Malek continues to choose fascinating roles like this, because I imagine that this is where he will find his niche as an actor – and he is just talented enough to play these weird and oddball characters without being zany enough to be downgraded to a character actor. Malek is a true talent in every sense of the word, and I really cannot wait to see where his future acting career will lead (and while I know that he will be brilliant in next year’s Bohemian Rhapsody, whether or not the film is good enough for Malek’s talents remains to be seen)

The problem with any postmodern work is that they tend to transcend genre – and I consider Buster’s Mal Heart to be one of the more blatant examples of a recent postmodern film. Buster’s Mal Heart contains elements of so many different genres and movements, it is difficult to place it on a logical spectrum – but this is precisely what I love about the film – it crosses so many boundaries and comes close to reaching a place of being almost impossible to categorize. Perhaps the best way to describe this film would be as a mystery film – but then again, that would ignore the fact that this is often a dark comedy, a family drama, a social tragedy and even sometimes a psychological horror. Sarah Adina Smith blends genre brilliantly, creating a wonderful combination of several types of film makes this a great example of contemporary postmodernism, and hopefully, if this film becomes a bit more widely seen, it will become a classic in the movement. It really is that wonderful.

Buster’s Mal Heart also has something else going for it – it is a wonderfully intelligent film. It never assumes that the audience isn’t capable of thinking, and it never bothers to explain anything – but that is a good trait. Buster’s Mal Heart is a film that relies on the slow-burn pace, and the disjointed narrative, to create something that the audience needs to put together themselves. It is filled with twists and turns, and it is a cerebral film, but not one that sets out to confuse, but rather one that has the aim to enlighten the audience in some way. At only 96 minutes in length, it is a film that goes by very quickly, but not without involving the audience in its complex narrative. The layered nature of this story makes this one of the most thrillingly intelligent films of recent years and something that leaves you thinking. Perhaps this isn’t very clear to explain, but trust me when I say that unlike films made complicated for the same of being complicated, Buster’s Mal Heart (if anything, it will teach one that the prefix “mal” can be used as a standalone word, which was an interesting takeaway from this film, that’s for sure)

If we move away from the literary connotations and inspirations of this film, we can see that Buster’s Mal Heart fits right in there will surrealism. Now just as it is no secret that I love Kafka and Pynchon, I have never hidden my adoration for surrealism. However, Buster’s Mal Heart does not fall into either of the two “main” categories of surrealism that I have highlighted before – it isn’t part of the sinister and industrial dark weirdness of David Lynch, nor is it as playfully joyful and offbeat like the work of Alejandro Jodorowsky. It is a very different kind of surrealism, taking its cue from something like the master of surreal cinema, Luis Buñuel. It is an odd comparison, but much like Buñuel’s films (particularly The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie), Smith finds surreal, offbeat moments in the most realistic of circumstances – there is an uneasiness that pervades this film, creating a sense of paranoia and fear, and signalling the presence of otherworldly factors, while there really aren’t any in this film at all – simply the suggestion, which is more than enough to justify the paranoia that is present throughout. It finds strange moments in an uncanny world, which is seemingly just like our own, but ever so slightly unrecognizable – which is indeed the most terrifying thing, to experience something that isn’t otherworldly, but rather so close to our own world, but seen through a demented lens. Buster’s Mal Heart is an extremely odd film, but also one that occupies a very important place as a non-conventional surrealist film, and when surrealism itself is considered non-conventional art, you can imagine how fascinating Buster’s Mal Heart is.

Most of what I have spoken about has been regarding this film’s themes – but let me just say that Buster’s Mal Heart is also stunningly gorgeous. In its two narratives, it takes place in two very different locales – the claustrophobic, bland hotel, and the wide-open, beautiful mountain landscapes – and somehow, it manages to be utterly beautiful in both instances. The cinematography is simple but effective. It isn’t overly elaborate and serves its purpose, to highlight the story and show natural progression. The urban and the natural are juxtaposed together in a way that is both unsettling and awe-inspiring. Here is hoping that cinematographer Shaheen Seth is hired for some high-profile films because he certainly has quite a bit of talent behind that camera. It is a film complex in themes, and beautiful in aesthetic.

I will finally once again make the plea I often make – please support independent film. While many filmmakers rely on crowdfunding to get their passion projects made, you don’t need to contribute (although you will be heroic if you do, as independent filmmakers need all the help they can get) – all you need to do is see these films. Independent cinema keeps getting stronger and stronger, and so many young filmmakers are being given voices in higher places because of the support their films are receiving – simply look at two of the most acclaimed films of last year – if Whiplash hadn’t been a breakout hit with audiences, Damien Chazelle might never have been given the opportunity to make La La Land, and if positive word-of-mouth hadn’t helped Moonlight rise in profile, it wouldn’t have defied the odds and won Best Picture. Independent film is important, and Buster’s Mal Heart is certainly a film that needs to be seen – in a world where mainstream film is becoming more and more unoriginal with tentpole blockbusters, it is essential to have cinematic voices like Sarah Adina Smith. Independent filmmakers very often make audacious, highly original pieces, and they deserve to be seen. Buster’s Mal Heart is one of the more wonderful independent films I have seen recently, and if there is a film that deserves to be seen, it is this masterpiece. So please, give these films a shot. You will find something original, and the filmmakers will benefit, both from the money earned and from the exposure of having their film seen by a wider audience.

Finally, I have to say that Buster’s Mal Heart is a truly great film. I was a little dubious at first, and the disjointed narrative was a bit jarring – however, by the time this film ended, I was moved close to tears. I would call Rami Malek a revelation, but anyone who has seen him in Mr Robot will know that the man has got serious talent. The film is gritty, raw and beautifully made, and the story is audacious and deeply fascinating. There isn’t much to be said about Buster’s Mal Heart that I haven’t said already, other than it is a beautiful and complex piece of cinema. There is no other way around it, Buster’s Mal Heart is one of the best films of the year.


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