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Buster's Mal Heart (Movie Review)

Buster's Mal Heart (Movie Review)
7 10

PLOT: In the wake of an unspeakable tragedy, a family man named Jonah (Rami Malek) is forced to go on the lam in the Montana wilderness, where he holes up in various winter vacations homes and waits for a cataclysmic Y2K-like event called The Inversion.

REVIEW: With five short films serving as preamble to her 2014 feature debut THE MIDNIGHT SWIM, the incontestably talented writer/director Sarah Adina Smith is back with the equally captivating BUSTER’S MAL HEART – an elliptical before-and-after examination of a man’s grief-stricken descent into unwitting psychosis. At times humorous, at times heartbreaking, yet always entertaining, this odd and offbeat character study that by Smith’s own admission owes a lot – tonally and thematically – to DONNIE DARKO and BAD SANTA, is a truly bit too peculiar to pass up. That said, the ambivalent conclusion of the film not only confuses and confounds, it hedges in a way that can’t seem to make up its mind. It’s a convictionless curio in that regard, but because of the stark imagery and audacious performance of Rami Malek, BUSTER’S MAL HEART is a quirky screwball tragedy all should see!

Jonah (Malek) is feeling the crushing weight of societal norms. He and his wife Marty (Kate Lyn Sheil) and their young daughter live with her harridan of mother (Lin Shaye), their only line of income drawn from his late-night concierge post at a roadside hotel. One night, a creepy drifter called Brown (DJ Qualls) shows up at the hotel, demanding a room, bloviating about something called The Inversion – a Y2K-like blackout of utter destruction – that he’s sure is being conducted by shadowy governmental forces. Brown’s manic paranoia starts to rub off on Jonah, if only a little, tapping his own sense of systemic mistrust and societal alienation. See, Jonah has grand designs for his family to sort of unplug, retreat to a plot of land where they can live sustainably off their own fishing and farming. Of course, scrounging around from check to check can’t quite afford that lifestyle. But as Brown continues to drone on about The Inversion, Jonah entertains the idea of escape more and more. And then the tragedy strikes!

At the risk of spoiling, we cannot expound, but in the wake of a life-altering horror, Jonah soon becomes known by his titular alias, Buster. Hang with us. Now on the lam for his possible culpability in the alluded to tragedy, Jonah skulks through the wintery Montana snow, breaking into and finding shelter in various vacation cabins that have been left vacant. He barges in, gets warm, ransacks the food supplies, leaves quirky imprints behind such as hanging all the framed pictures on the wall upside down. Inverted. Now a fully bearded, long-maned mountain man, Buster phones in to a local radio station, nonsensically espousing doomsday paranoia and wild-cocked theories of this so called impending Inversion. Buster is also beset by a recurring dream where he’s adrift at sea, alone, left only to confront his own sense aimless spirituality. It’s here that the movie meanders into the abstract, but of course, we slalom back and forth between this, the present, and angst-ridden past where we can sense in Jonah a latent feeling of being trapped. Immobile. Unhappy.

To this end, the movie makes some well observed and articulated points on how the spindle of the socioeconomic machinery can grind a man down to a nub, and how the concomitant desire to resist and self-sustain can be a prudent one. There’s one heartbreaking scene in particular in which Jonah and Marty argue in the kitchen over their differing views on how to live life and raise their child that is as genuine as you’ll find in a movie so far this year. The thing is though, I found that much of the quirky absurdism in the film tends to sap the more heartfelt emotional tumult. That is, Buster’s odd peccadilloes tend to threaten the sympathetic gravity of his own dire situation. By laughing at him, we can’t quite cry for him, and this sort of push and pull doesn’t quite reconcile in the most satisfactory manner. In fact, the last shot of the film – which is clearly open to interpretation – raises more questions than it gives answers. Vexingly so, a la DONNIE DARKO. And honestly, the thematic knobs turn different ways depending on which interpretation you read the film with. The movie is either a statement about severe-stress and overworked insomnia, or rather a man’s grief-stricken downfall into utter madness. However, these opposing views can’t, and don’t, jive together.

Yet, while the destination is a bit murky, the journey getting there is still pretty rewarding. Much of this is due to Mr. Robot’s Rami Malek delivering a shaded and nuanced turn as a loving father and husband who isn’t quite long for the cold and cruel 21st century world. It’s a funny, unpredictable, idiosyncratic performance sure to elicit a full gamut of emotional registers. Word is Malek signed on to the film prior to landing the title role on his new hit TV series, so it’s worth wondering if he’d have opted to play the part after his newfound success. And who, if he turned it down, would or could play the roles of Jonah/Buster instead. It seems so tailor-made to Malek’s attributes. All this to say I’m certainly glad I saw BUSTER’S MAL HEART, but can really only recommend it with the key caveat that it’s sure to irk some, bound to test most, and no doubt challenge the rest. The final shot seems to substantiate two possible retrospective threads, which in a way feels both cool and exciting but also like sort of a hedging copout. Still, there’s enough inherent goodness in BUSTER’S MAL HEART to open your own to embrace it!

Extra Tidbit: BUSTER'S MAL HEART hits select theaters Friday, April 28th.
Source: AITH

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