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D: Sarah Adina Smith / 98m

Cast: Rami Malek, DJ Qualls, Kate Lyn Sheil, Mark Kelly, Sukha Belle Potter, Lin Shaye, Sandra Ellis Lafferty, Nicholas Pryor, Toby Huss, Bruce Bundy

The eponymous Buster (Malek) is a vagrant who breaks into empty vacation homes in a remote mountain community, and who stays in each property for as long as he wishes. The authorities, led by a local deputy named Winston (Huss), have been trying to catch him for some time but Buster is wily and elusive. Buster has also gained his name thanks to his regular calls to radio stations where he rants and raves about the upcoming “Inversion”, an impending celestial event that will have a serious impact on everyone on Earth. But Buster’s real name is Jonah, and the events that have brought him to this place and time in his life are shown in flashback.

A night concierge at a less than busy hotel, Jonah is married to Marty (Sheil), and has a young daughter, Roxy (Potter). He doesn’t like working nights as he can’t always sleep during the day, but staffing problems at the hotel prohibit Jonah from changing to days; also his duties are dull and repetitive, and add to the overwhelming ennui that he’s begun to feel. When a stranger (Qualls) tries to get a room for the night but has no I.D. or other way of confirming his identity, the man’s talk of being free and able to do whatever he wants strikes a chord in Jonah, and he agrees to let him stay for just the one night. The man tells Jonah about the Inversion, an event that will coincide with the expected chaos of Y2K, and his impassioned speech has a profound effect on Jonah, who finds an unexpected succour in the idea.

The man returns the next night, and against Jonah’s better judgment, he allows him to stay until the morning. This leads to a tragedy that affects Jonah greatly, and causes him to abandon his life and take to the mountains where in time he becomes Buster. He stays one step ahead of the authorities, until one day the owners of the house he’s hiding out in arrive home unexpectedly, forcing him to deal with their presence and the attentions of a neighbour who comes calling one afternoon. Soon Buster is on the run, and cornered in a cave in the mountains…

The first thing to realise about Buster’s Mal Heart, the second feature from Sarah Adina Smith, is that the Inversion is the movie’s idea of a McGuffin: it never happens, it’s assigned too much importance by the stranger and Jonah/Buster, and it acts as a catalyst for certain events that Jonah becomes involved with. As a plot device it’s fairly simplistic, and as a way of providing or assigning motivation to the characters, it’s undermined by a plot development that Smith throws in towards the end of Jonah’s story. But what it does do that’s quite important is that it allows the movie to retain an air of mystery that, without it, would leave the movie looking and feeling a lot less mysterious and a lot more straightforward than it appears.

Smith introduces us to Buster from the start, then switches back to when he was Jonah, and in an attempt to make the movie seem more elliptical, shows him as another version of Buster but one stranded in a rowboat on the ocean. Smith then interweaves all three stories in an effort to explore the notion of a fractured, possibly irredeemable psyche, and the ways in which it tries to circumvent the overwhelming feelings brought on by a terrible tragedy. It’s powerful, humane stuff, made all the more powerful by Smith’s languorous, dream-like direction, and Malek’s emotive yet disconnected performances. The movie attempts to show that even when someone tries to beat an emotional retreat from the world, they’re still tied to it, no matter how hard they try and break away. Jonah becomes Buster out of necessity and lives a life of housebreaking and reclusivity. But in a moment that resonates deeply, Buster watches a news story about a message in a bottle that has washed up on a beach and been found. It’s a message his ocean-stranded alter ego created and sent out into the world – a lifeline, perhaps – and it precipitates an end to Buster’s life of crime.

This of course begs the question, is either of Jonah’s new identities “real”, or are they just avatars that his mind has come up with to help him deal with his agony and despair. Smith offers no easy answers (as befits a mystery), but can’t help but litter her screenplay with clues as to the likelihood that Jonah is experiencing a psychic split, or conversely, that it’s all a waking dream. It’s left to the viewer to make up their own minds, but in reality, the movie doesn’t need too close an inspection for it to reveal its secrets. Smith is an original, visually competent director, but in attempting to make Jonah’s journey more compelling, she makes the mistake of assigning depth to sections of the movie that don’t deserve them. In the end, Jonah’s breakdown is only that: a breakdown, and no matter much Smith tricks it out with cinematic sleights-of-hand, it’s not a puzzle that needs too much investigation to solve.

As Jonah, Malek’s constrained performance perfectly fits the bewilderment the character is experiencing in his daily life, while as Buster his wild man of the mountains appearance reflects the anguish that Jonah must be feeling. Malek is also on form as the version of Jonah who finds himself “all at sea”, a handy metaphor for how the character must be feeling overall. Some viewers may find all this too obvious for their liking, but what can’t be denied is that Smith, along with cinematographer Shaheen Seth, has created a number of milieus for Jonah to inhabit, and while they all spring from the same grounding in reality, they also serve as a jumping off point for the more surreal elements in Smith’s screenplay.

The ending is unsurprisingly designed to make viewers question their assumptions, but it’s one last parlour trick that is likely to evoke frustration rather than admiration. By doing so, Smith allows for yet one more outcome of Jonah’s breakdown, but though it ties in neatly with the notion that what we’ve witnessed is an allegory based on the story of Jonah and the whale, it’s not as effective as it first seems. Still, Smith is to be congratulated for creating a tale that is confidently handled for the most part, and which requires its audience to contemplate whether or not Jonah’s tri-lateral existence is a boon or a hindrance when it comes to reconfiguring his damaged psyche.

Rating: 7/10 – a somewhat dour narrative benefits greatly from Smith’s ambitious directing style and Malek’s propitious performance, making Buster’s Mal Heart an intriguing movie to watch but not necessarily one to revisit; the cinematography, editing (also by Smith), and soundtrack all add lustre to the movie’s tone and point of view, and though it all seems unnecessarily tricky, there’s heart and warmth here too, even if it’s in short supply.