By Adam Yuster
I’m a big fan of Rami Malek. Malek has a miraculous ability to make the most psychologically unstable characters both relatable and realistic. His signature show, Mr. Robot, is good, but it’s nothing without its star. Malek plays his Mr. Robot character, Elliot, with nuance and restraint. He does display extreme emotion on occasion, but it always feels natural, and it contrasts nicely with the rest of his subdued performance. The empathy Malek has for even the darkest of minds makes him one of the most talented actors on television.
When I read that Buster’s Mal Heart had cast Malek as “a troubled man on the run” and the film’s synopsis described it as a “visceral mind-bender that will provoke discussion long after it turns your world upside down”, I knew I had to see it. It sounded awfully similar to Mr. Robot, and how could I miss the opportunity to see Rami play an Elliot-type character on the silver screen?
After having seen the film, I can conclude that Rami did not disappoint. His performance is magnetic – easily the best component of the film. If only the rest of the movie could operate on his level.
Buster’s Mal Heart kicks off with a man (Rami Malek) adrift on a dinghy in the middle of the ocean. It’s unclear who he is, or why he’s there. We don’t find out any of this information until the end of the film.
Cut to another man (also played by Malek) running through a forest late at night. His hair is overgrown, and he hasn’t shaved in months. Forest rangers chase after him, guns blazing. This man, known as Buster, is a felon wanted for breaking into people’s vacation homes while they’re away. Buster’s sublimely strange calling cards include using his victims’ telephones to dial up radio talk shows and rant about Y2K, taking baths in his victims’ tubs, and dropping a deuce in his victims’ kitchenware (yes, you did read that right).
As the rangers close in on him, we flash back to a few months earlier. We learn that Buster used to be a reputable hotel concierge by the name of Jonah. We’re introduced to his long-suffering wife, Marty (Kate Lyn Sheil). Jonah and Marty wish to find a better home in which to raise Adelita (Teresa Yenque), their young daughter, but they’re too strapped for cash to do it. When Brown (DJ Qualls), a coked-up conspiracy theorist, stays at Jonah’s hotel overnight, everything changes. Brown hatches a plan that will make Jonah rich, but it could put both of their lives in danger in the process.
Credit where credit is due: writer/director Sarah Adina Smith sure knows how to work a camera. Buster’s Mal Heart has some of the most beautiful nature-based scenes I’ve seen since The Revenant. The film’s opening image is a breathtaking shot of sunlight glistening off of the ocean. Later, we’re treated to a stunning view of snow falling on a mountain range. Images like these permeate the entire film, and they make me wonder if Adina Smith was a nature photographer in a past life.
Unfortunately, Buster’s Mal Heart’s story doesn’t live up to its scenery. The most disappointing thing about Buster’s Mal Heart is that for all its proselytizing about the apocalypse, for all its odd flourishes and non-sequiturs, it still manages to be a fairly conventional thriller. Adina Smith has created a fantastically original character in Jonah/Buster, yet it feels as though she was unwilling to commit to his outlandishness. This becomes especially apparent in the second act of the movie, which strips the limelight away from Buster and shines it on Jonah. Jonah’s fall from grace is painfully predictable – I pegged the climactic event that caused Jonah’s transformation into Buster from the moment Brown entered Jonah’s life.
Predictability aside, Jonah himself is bland. He’s an unevenly written everyman, obviously fashioned in the ilk of Ed Norton’s character in Fight Club. We’ve seen this type of character onscreen time and time again. Rather than taking this archetype and deconstructing it, Adina Smith plays directly into the archetype, and the film suffers as a result. Rami tries his best to inject life into Jonah, but even he can’t salvage the character.
If we had other compelling characters to latch onto, this wouldn’t be a huge problem. Unfortunately, Jonah is surrounded by a supporting cast of stock characters. Jonah’s wife, his boss, his co-workers – none have any qualities that make them stand out from the crowd. Brown, the most interesting of the bunch, still feels derivative. His rants are all so broad and unfocused that it’s hard to derive anything about him other than “this guy’s crazy”.
The only character in the film worth rooting for is Buster, and we only see precious snippets of him for a good hour. Luckily, the movie pulls itself out of its Jonah-centric narrative lull by returning to Buster for its third act. Re-focusing the film on its titular deranged recluse gives Adina Smith the opportunity to make a tonal shift. In a split second, the film flips from a pitch-black conspiracy thriller to a Coen brothers-esque black comedy. The first taste of this tonal shift comes during what is perhaps my favorite scene of the movie. Just prior to his run-in with the forest rangers, Buster breaks into a vacation home that’s owned by an elderly couple. To his surprise, the elderly couple returns home while he’s cooking. The woman is horrified, but her husband takes one look at the grizzly Buster, sizes him up, and says, “Santa?” What transpires is the most hilariously awkward dinner scene I’ve ever seen. Here, the movie finds its groove. I only wish it could’ve gotten there sooner.
The final few minutes of the film take a turn toward the preposterous with a Shyamalan-y twist that ties into the man on the dinghy from the beginning of the film. But it doesn’t add up. In the words of its own synopsis, Buster’s Mal Heart’s twist “turned my world upside down”, but in more of a “what the heck did I just see?” way, not in an “oh my god, that was so cool!” way. If better implemented, this twist could be as mind-blowing and philosophical as I’m sure Adina Smith intended it to be; as is, it’s a step down from the highs of the awkward dinner scene.
If there’s anything to take away from Buster’s Mal Heart, it’s that Rami Malek deserves more attention as a serious actor. Adina Smith’s debut thriller may be a bumpy ride, but Malek consistently rescues Buster’s Mal Heart from the brink with a truly stellar performance as Buster. He brightens every single scene he’s in by fully committing to the rougher edges of Buster’s personality, even when Adina Smith’s script does not. For that, I give Malek my utmost commendation. I look forward to watching whatever project he has lined up next.