Back in the fall of 2016, I attended my first film festival screening. The film I saw was Buster’s Mal Heart directed by Sarah Adina Smith at the Toronto International Film Festival. I was incredibly excited for this film as it starred my favorite actor at the time (and still to this day), Rami Malek. Malek became my favorite actor through his performance in Mr. Robot, and this film had so many similar stylistics that it is a perfect film for others who enjoy the show.
Since it has been so long since I watched this, and I often mention it as being one of my favorite films, I thought I would revisit it and write a more formal review.
Buster’s Mal Heart, at its core, is about how grief and hopelessness can lead you down a haunting path of depression and paranoia. Rami Malek plays a simple family man named Jonah, who struggles to keep his family afloat and raise his young daughter while working the night shift as a hotel concierge. He and his wife (played by Kate Lyn Sheil) dream of buying a plot of land and becoming self-sufficient, but in reality, are stuck living with family, feeling trapped by the walls around them. Malek’s character in the latter half of this film transforms into an equal parts infamous criminal mountain man who breaks into vacation homes when they are empty in the winter and Y2K conspiracy theorist who is referred to by the name Buster.
It is confusing in the same way that immense grief will warp the reality you live in, and such is the case for our main character Jonah/Buster, from a turning point in the film this grief takes him to a literal crossroads, one that splits his being in two and brings him to different realities of his life. From its non-chronological timeline to the plot points and scenes that seemingly make zero sense (although I believe Smith has some deeper meanings threaded into those), it creates the perfect tone to watch this character spiral further and further until he falls into this way of living, being and thinking that only he can make sense of, and the viewer has no way of comprehending.
When I first saw this I remember finding it quite confusing, as well as seeing other reviews discuss the confusing story-line. That being said though, the twists and turns sneak up on you, making it so that as you are watching the majority of the film you will think to yourself that it is actually quite understandable, up until it goes completely off the rails near the end. This was exactly my experience when re-watching, I kept thinking to myself that I was actually following the plot really well, that all went downhill very quickly near the end though. The film is a perfect blend of mind-twisting nonsense and brilliant interweaving alternate visions of reality through the eyes of Jonah.
Smith showcases a downward spiral in such an effective way, clearly showing how each hardship that Jonah faces affects him mentally. It is both extremely upsetting and terrifying at the same time.
The performances are fantastic from everyone. With such a limited cast, the film relied on Rami Malek, Kate Lyn Sheil, DJ Qualls and the adorable Sukha Belle Potter who plays the young daughter were all able to shine in this. Malek was just as fantastic here as he is in his other roles and plays this character at the same brilliant level that he plays Elliot in Mr. Robot. His ability to switch from pure and wholesome family man to overtired hotel concierge to paranoid mountain man conspiracy theorist to a man stranded at sea was something he managed to do seamlessly, and he continues to impress.
It would be a shame to review this and not talk about how it has some genius comedic moments in it. It’s hard to believe that such a dark and depressing film could also have such hilarious moments, but it does. You are in for some perfectly timed comedic treats when watching this, all I’m going to say is that you may be hesitant around Crock-Pots from now on.
Sarah Adina Smith not only directed this film but also wrote and edited it, and did an incredible job at all these roles (I also want to give a special shout out to the very female-heavy crew). This film just proves her immense talent, and I am really looking forward to hopefully seeing much more in the future from her.
This is a movie that is tough to shake, and Smith’s brilliant writing, directing and editing places you right at the core of all the emotion it portrays. I’ve been thinking about this movie for years and it still hits me just as hard as it did the first time I saw it.