Studiously but sometimes exhilaratingly off-track, Buster’s Mal Heart stars Rami Malek, the single biggest reason to still be watching Mr. Robot. The actor is intense, mysterious and unpredictable, playing a role that may years from now be called “classic Malek.” Written and directed by Sarah Adina Smith, the deeply weird indie kicks into gear with Malek running for his life through snowy Montana backwoods as the police and gunshots dog his every move until he holes up in a cave.
How did he get here? For that, we have to spend most of the rest of the movie’s running time alternating between flashback and flash forward. Turns out the hero also goes by Jonah, a downtrodden hotel concierge living a conventional life with his wife Marty (Kate Lyn Sheil) and sweet little daughter (scene-stealing Sukha Belle Potter), to whom he speaks in Spanish and English. Wanting more than a humdrum existence and staying one step ahead of the bill collectors, Jonah razor-focuses on his dream of going off the grid by buying land in the country for his family while trying to calm his boredom and mounting paranoia. Think The Shining. The moviemakers certainly want us to.
His hunger for isolation and fantasies of flight are only accelerated by a conspiracy theorist computer consultant (DJ Qualls) who shows up at Jonah’s hotel wanting a room but refusing to give his name and claiming to have no credit card or ID. The good-hearted Jonah just won’t turn him away, so into the night the unnamed drifter yammers on and on about Y2K and an onrushing apocalyptic event—a possibly supernatural societal collapse that he calls the “great inversion.” Meanwhile, our hero has recurring dreams or visions of himself—or is it someone who just looks like him?—adrift in a rowboat in the middle of the sea.
In short order, the movie veers more and more into the surreal and stylized—with moments of maliciously funny dark comedy—as Jonah becomes a bearded, wild-eyed, crazy-haired, nearly feral mountain man, a harmless-seeming local character who pilfers supplies from strangers’ homes, assails radio talk show hosts with expletive-filled rants about Y2K and consults by phone with psychics and sex workers. In one of the movie’s best sequences, the unhinged Buster pulls a holiday-season home invasion on an older couple (Nicholas Pryor and Sandra Ellis Lafferty), tying them to their table while cooking them a feast.
Though well-acted (especially by Malek), nicely shot by Shaheen Seth and boosted by Paula Fairfield’s jangly, unnerving sound design, Buster’s Mal Heart often feels like all show and no go. The abstract narrative is full of paths that never get explored and questions that never get answered. But as a showcase for Smith’s unique talent, original vision and deadpan humor—let alone as a study of a strange guy with a rich inner life—the movie is an art house-style fascinator.