Buster’s Mal Heart premiered at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival where this review was written.
There are generally two kinds of weird movies you see at film festivals. Movies that dare to be weird, where weirdness is the selling point, the theme of the jacket copy — and movies that are simply allowed to be weird, movies that never really set out to be subversive, but whose inspiration caused a chain reaction that couldn’t be contained within familiar patterns. Buster’s Mal Heart, from writer/director Sarah Adina Smith, is of the second type. It’s this oddball little riff on an unhappy guy living in a mountain town, a Napoleon Dynamite-meets-Take Shelter kind of a thing where you never quite know what’s real, but it has such a low-key, absurdist sense of humor that you don’t entirely care. Films about apocalyptic thinking are rarely this funny.
It doesn’t end with some big crescendo that explains what it was on about the whole time, and non-literal storytelling tends to be more subjective. Which is why I doubt you’ll see rave reviews or growing buzz for Buster’s, which is simply too “off” to be appealing to a broad audience. But it mostly left me with my head tilted sideways like a German shepherd, slightly confused, but oddly charmed.
Mr. Robot‘s Rami Malek plays Buster, a mysterious mountain man locally famous for riding out winters in other people’s cabins, a mostly-tolerated menace who generally leaves the places clean, though he likes to turn their pictures upside down and occasionally sh*ts in pots — a “squatter” in every sense of it. In one cabin, he leaves a big drawing of a cosmic event on a window.
“It’s sort of like an onion,” Deputy Winston (Toby Huss) describes the drawing. “But with… an asshole at each end. An onion with two assholes.”
Buster’s Mal Heart cuts back and forth between Malek’s life as Buster, the stove-shitting asshole artist who raids cabin pantries like a bug-eyed Yogi Bear, and Buster’s previous life as Jonah, a front-desk clerk at a lonely hotel trying to balance graveyard shifts and living with his wife (Kate Lyn Shield) and child in his disapproving mother-in-law’s house. Lin Shaye plays the mother-in-law, and I desperately wish she’d branch out a little with her characters. I hate when I see a character actor and the casting tells me everything I need to know about the character. “Oh, you know that guy who always plays an effeminate villain? Yeah, he’s in this. Plays an effeminate villain.”
Anyway, we watch as Jonah gradually evolves from increasingly dissatisfied member of the service class to prepper curious to full-on loon, complete with Unabomber chic beard and sh*t-filled kitchenware. This transition is realistic enough to be terrifying, while Rami Malek’s performance renders it oddly charming. Who says a paranoiac nihilist can’t have a sense of humor? They generally do, in my experience. Jonah is influenced in his journey by an itchy drifter played by DJ Qualls (remember him? he should really be in more stuff) and a late night TV Alex Jones type, who prophesies the “coming of the second inversion” — a cosmic event resembling the aforementioned onion with two assholes.
Jonah’s slow transition is unsettling and his new incarnation as Buster is much funnier than you’d imagine such a thing, but Buster’s Mal Heart does slip into some unnecessary “goin’ crazy” tropes that the story is otherwise better than: the character who maybe isn’t there, the Big Event That Changes Everything. Part of the strength of Buster’s Mal Heart early on is that there isn’t a big event that turns Jonah into a squatter dissident, it’s just the stresses of modern life — bosses, job, in laws, relationships, money, commuting, parenting, sleep deprivation. He’s not some doomed soul with a tragic past, he’s us, a guy with a dream that sounds fairly reasonable: “to try to escape the way things work and do things his own way.”
So when there actually is a Big Event, Buster’s Mal Heart loses some of its magic. It doesn’t need it, and would’ve been better without it. Oddly, after this uncharacteristically pat quasi-explanation for some of Buster’s actions, the film floats even further away from an objective reality. It manages to get weirder in a way that isn’t quite a cop out and isn’t quite satisfying either. It’s an attempt to find a poetic solution to an existential problem, and it goes a little magical realist. Like the movie as a whole, the end is a headscratcher in the most positive sense of the word. Buster’s Mal Heart is the rare movie you’d describe as “interesting” and have it not be an insult.