Buster (Rami Malik) is a mountain man who lives in the wilderness of Montana by squatting in people’s empty vacation homes, and is a local celebrity due to his many rambling calls into local radio shows where he talks about an end of the world scenario, and because of his ability to evade capture by the local police. Also in Montana, Jonah (also Rami Malik), is a recently rehabilitated former convict doing his best to take care of his wife (Kate Lyn Sheil) and two year old daughter by working the night shift at a hotel, whose life is turned upside down when a nameless homeless man (DJ Qualls) claiming to be the prophet of the coming “inversion” convinces him to help him steal from the hotel guests. Meanwhile, a third man (also Rami Malik), is stranded on a tiny boat in the middle of the ocean, praying to God to end his suffering.
While David Lynch has had obvious influence on so many of indie film’s latest class of talent, I can’t recall a another movie capturing his virtuous impenetrability as writer/director Sarah Adina Smith does with Buster’s Mal Heart, her second feature film. The movie jumps around in time and space, giving precious few hints as to every thread’s relation to the others until the very end, and is just at deft as switching tones, from comedy to drama to thriller. Buster’s Mal Heart is also stuffed with so many biblical references that you begin to feel itself like a testament, although not the one you might be expecting.
Jonah, who may or may not be the same instance of Rami Malik as the one trapped in the ocean, is a typical New Testament success – the sinner who found God through his wife, and through that revelation, begun a new life as an honest man. In the middle of the cold Montana winter, Jonah offers a hotel room to a homeless man claiming to be a prophet who will free him from a system of enslavement. Unfortunately, Jonah finds himself in a world ruled by the jealous God of the Old Testament who would kick Adam and Eve out of paradise, flood the entire world, have Abraham bind Isaac, make the Jews wonder the desert for forty years, rob Job of his family and home on a bet, and have Jonah swallowed by a whale. Jonah’s faith in this messiah’s gospel is not rewarded, but continually tested, pushing Jonah further and further from the life he imagined for himself after finding religion.
There’s just as much depth to the movie’s choice in setting. The hotel Jonah works at is soul deadening, all empty spaces in dull shades of green, brown, beige, and gray that make you wonder why anybody would ever want to stay the night there. Jonah is dwarfed by his concierge desk, so when he sits down, only anything above his chin is visible. Meanwhile, the Montana mountains, even in the dead of winter, are lush and inviting. Unlike the desolate emptiness of the hotel, the outdoor’s wide open spaces invite you to explore them. Buster, as an outlaw, has more freedom that Jonah at his job. The system is broken, things have been inversed.
The film being set in the late 90’s adds more than just the opportunity to put all the characters in big glasses and high-waisted pants that poof out their tucked in shirts. Y2K on the horizon isn’t just a cultural in-joke, but used as a sign of something big to come. In their day, the nineties were thought of as “the end of history,” and the ennui of that feeling was captured by late nineties cultural artifacts like American Pie, Fight Club, and The Matrix. The nameless man’s talk of having to break through the system to find happiness isn’t just something for audiences to laugh about in from their retrospective position as contemporary viewers, but is an example of that same cultural zeitgeist that really did enthrall young men with few other problems at the turn of the 21st century.
Malik is mesmerizing in all his roles, switching between them perfectly, making each of them a character you never want to take your eyes off of. As Jonah, he taps into the same off-kilter energy of another sleepless caretaker of a famous cinematic hotel in the mountains. Even before the event that changes his life, Jonah is perpetually tired, with puffy red bags under his eyes, looking like he’s on the verge of collapsing or stretched thin enough to snap. As Buster, Rami is more energetic, but also enigmatic. More Sasquatch than man, you watch him to see what he’ll do next, whether it’s flipping every picture in one family’s house upside-down, or taking a dump in their kitchen-ware for the cops to find once he’s left.
Buster’s Mal Heart is an incredibly dense movie, and doubtless one with more questions than answers. Part character study, part religious meditation, and taking cues from multiple genres and styles; if you take a chance on this movie, I assure you that you’ll likely come up with entirely different conclusions than I’ve done in this review. Drawing comparisons back to Lynch, Buster’s Mal Heart is a difficult movie to recommend because it’s a difficult movie to pin down and describe. But despite being unable to put into words, it will stick with you long after the credits role, if only because you’re still working your mind through what, exactly, you just watched.