Each of us possesses a breaking point, an invisible threshold or limit to the amount of pain or anger or stress we can endure. No one really knows how they’ll respond upon piercing this barrier until the moment it occurs. It’s a line that no one should willingly cross, because how we act under such tremendous duress could cost our freedom, our sanity, or even our life — or the life of another. For most people, the challenge of reaching their personal breaking point is recognizing the signs and avoiding the triggers. Unfortunately, sometimes life just deals you a series of slow, repeated blows that compounds until you’re pushed over the edge (probably before you even realize it’s happened).
Buster’s Mal Heart, written and directed by Sarah Adina Smith, is a strange, independent film that’s invested in exploring one man’s breaking point. It’s a psychological examination conducted from multiple angles: before, during, and after… just maybe not in that order. We meet Buster (Rami Malek), a Montana mountain man fleeing the police in the dead of a back country winter — a scene that’s highly reminiscent of Sylvester Stallone’s 1981 film, First Blood. This is clearly the end of Buster’s journey, as he’s wounded and his prospects for escape look bleak. However, what follows is far different from what this setup suggests.
Smith jumbles the timeline, flashing back several years when Buster was a happily married man with a beautiful young daughter. Buster works the night shift at a remote Montana hotel, as a concierge named Noah. It’s a dreary job: cleaning the pool, walking the grounds, and checking-in late night arrivals from different walks of life — some good, some not so good. Shades of Kubrick’s The Shining are heavily implied in Smith’s direction, which consists of high-angle shots, a mood of isolation, and periods of deep, disturbing quiet.
The variable timeline sometimes shows Noah living his modest life, and then suddenly shifts to Buster acting completely insane, makes it difficult to get a read on either what this film is trying to say or what it wants to be. It’s not clear whether this an action film, a horror movie, or something else entirely — the incredibly ambiguous final scenes fail to reveal the truth of what’s transpired.
Despite the confusing and often confounding narrative, Buster’s Mal Heart is a surprisingly engaging film; the performances, in particular, are solid (and sometimes spectacular). Rami Malek, known for his breakout roles in Mr. Robot and HBO’s The Pacific, immerses himself as both Buster and Noah, who are essentially extremes of the same character, but separated by several years. Noah is an everyman, he and his wife, Marty (Kate Lyn Sheil), live with her parents; they’re a pair of broken, struggling souls just scraping their way from one paycheck to the next. They want to build something for themselves and their daughter, but they both know it will never happen on a concierge’s salary. The pressure and stress to be father, husband, and breadwinner takes a progressive toll on Noah, eventually leading him down a dark and terrible path.
The central story of poor, working-class people trying to scratch out a better life for themselves — and the temptation to take a few dire short cuts — is pretty universal; a tale any of us can appreciate, and perhaps many of us have lived. Malek and Sheil turn in fantastic, understated performances, even after the events on the third act become rather surreal. The major issue with this movie is that it never fully embraces the genres it brushes up against, which leads to some frustrating pacing and odd character turns.
Buster’s Mal Heart is a solid, capable film with compelling characters and a richly realized world. As a horror film it’s subdued, as an action film it pulls too many punches, but as a character study it has its merits. Unfortunately, the underdeveloped story and strange choices in direction keep it from being a much better film.
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Buster’s Mal Heart is now playing in limited release.