A psychological puzzle dramatizing the difficulties of fleeing from both society and oneself at the same time, Sarah Adina Smith’s Buster’s Mal Heart offers three views of a very damaged man. Fans of Mr. Robot won’t be disappointed in the least by this vehicle for Emmy-winning series star Rami Malek, which both fits in with Mr. Robot‘s delusion-prone paranoia and lets the charismatic actor stretch out in his first feature lead. But the picture’s art house appeal goes further than that, demonstrating Smith’s cinematic intelligence and an acute sympathy for alienated characters.
After a mysterious prologue in which two silhouetted men sit in a tiny boat on the ocean, flickering in and out of view like a bad TV signal, Malek enters the film running madly through a forest, fleeing shotgun-wielding cops and taking refuge in a cave.
Cut to 11 days earlier, when, now wearing a Jesus beard and scraggly hair, Malek is breaking into Montana vacation homes and living on what he finds in their pantries. A fugitive, he’s known to local news media as Buster, a harmless kook who can’t keep from calling in to radio stations and ranting to DJs about conspiracy theories. Despite some unsettling signature moves (he always turns a family’s photos upside down before he leaves), Buster means no harm — as evidenced later in the film, when he is caught by two elderly homeowners and has to become a touchingly considerate kidnapper.
The pic then flashes back further, showing an apparently sane Buster — whose real name turns out to be Jonah — being swallowed by the whale of American capitalism. Living with the parents of his wife Marty (Kate Lyn Sheil), he’s struggling to save money while working an exhausting graveyard-shift job. Buster’s the overnight clerk at a remote hotel, and his solitary nightly chores recall the isolation that drove another caretaker to madness in The Shining. Unable to adjust to day-sleeping, Jonah is growing desperate. “I just wish I could get some traction,” he says, describing the feeling of barely keeping up with his economic needs. But viewers will suspect that his dream of saving enough to buy some land, where he and Marty can raise their adorable daughter off the grid, is probably next to impossible.
Impossible, that is, if he continues to play the Man’s game. An itinerant computer consultant (DJ Qualls) stops in at the hotel one night, hoping to pay cash for a room without officially checking in, and soon the two men are having all-night conversations about a society “designed to trap” ordinary people. The loner predicts a perhaps supernatural reckoning to come: “The Second Inversion,” which will involve a world-transforming wormhole. After a couple of late-night visits, the two begin talking about ways a man of the underclass might get some of that traction Jonah needs so badly.
As it channel-surfs between these two drastically different views of Jonah, the movie occasionally glimpses a third, in which someone who looks a lot like Buster sits in a rowboat far out at sea. Is this Jonah’s dream version of himself, or vice-versa? Are all three men connected by a single timeline? Do they even occupy the same universe? What’s real and what’s hallucination is an increasingly difficult question, and if Smith doesn’t intend to answer every question she raises, she will at least draw lines from each one back to a singularity harrowing enough to collapse a man’s sense of reality.
A burbling electro score by Mister Squinter subtly amplifies the characters’ impending-apocalypse talk, but Smith doesn’t lean too hard in the direction of sci-fi, preferring instead to suggest that a single man’s mind contains more than enough worlds to explore.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Vanguard)
Production companies: Snowfort Pictures, Everything Is Everything
Cast: Rami Malek, DJ Qualls, Kate Lyn Sheil, Sukha Belle Potter, Toby Huss, Lin Shaye, Mark Kelly
Director-screenwriter-editor: Sarah Adina Smith
Producers: Jonako Donley, Travis Stevens
Executive producers: Mynette Louie, Julie Parker Benello, Dan Cogan, Geralyn Dreyfous, Wendy Ettinger, Samuel T. Bauer
Director of photography: Shaheen Seth
Production designer: Alexis Rose
Costume designer: Emily Batson
Composer: Mister Squinter
Casting director: Samy Burch
Sales: Andrew Herwitz, Film Sales Corporation
Not rated, 97 minutes