Film: Buster’s Mal Heart

STUDIO: Well Go USA | DIRECTOR/SCREENWRITER: Sarah Adina Smith | CAST: Rami Malek, DJ Qualls, Kate Lyn Sheil, Lin Shaye, Toby Huss, Mark Kelly, Teresa Yenque
RELEASE DATE: April 28, 2017
SPECS: NR | 96 min. | Psychological mystery/drama

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  

I went into my viewing of Sarah Adina Smith’s second directorial film, Buster’s Mal Heart (2016) knowing very little of both the film and of the director’s previous work. However, for her sophomore piece, Smith certainly leaves an notable impression as a young up-and-coming director who demonstrates an apt understanding of film as visual form of storytelling.

Throughout the film, Smith utilizes visual cues and scene composition to give the audience clues to both the story and its main character’s state of mind. It is a wonderfully shot piece with rich cinematography by Shaheen Seth. The musical accompaniment, supervised by Rachel Komar,  also proves to be impressive; while it can admittedly be heavy handed at times, with use of such songs as “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and “Rivers of Babylon,” the soundtrack also offers low droning synthetic beats at key points of the film, which help create an eerie and apprehensive atmosphere.

Smith sets out to explore the psychology of a mentally ill protagonist. As someone who suffers from a (un)healthy mix of both anxiety and depression, I personally found that this film hits the right beats of giving its audiences an idea of what it’s like to feel mentally trapped.

Rami Malek in Buster’s Mal Heart

Buster’s Mal Heart film focuses on the psychological breakdown of  a mountain man called “Buster” (Rami Malek). Buster is a wanted man, as he is known to break into empty vacation homes and use their facilities in order to survive the winter. The core narrative of the film is told through the use of flashbacks, where we learn that Buster had in fact been a married man named Jonah who worked the nightshift as a concierge at a hotel in order to support his family: his wife, Marty (Kate Lyn Sheil), and their adorable toddler, Roxy. They lived with Marty’s parents, and Jonah’s ultimate goal was to save enough money to purchase his own plot of land in hopes of living off the grid and no longer having to be dependent on anyone but himself.

The crux of Buster’s Mal Heart utilizes narrative themes from the biblical story of Jonah and the Whale, mainly the passivity of Man trapped in the belly of a bestial capitalistic society. Jonah is shown suffering from malaise of a world where he feels trapped, finds himself unable to gain traction, and is both physically and mentally stuck at an in-between moment in time. The hotel he works at (which evokes the empty and paranoid atmosphere of The Shining’s Overlook Hotel) is a temporary lodging for rich couples who have missed their flights, and the year in which the film takes place is revealed to be at the turn of the century during the Y2K scare. While Jonah is not necessarily happy with his lot in life, he does nothing to change his circumstances until a mysterious nameless man (DJ Qualls) appears at the hotel one night.

Buster’s Mal Heart proves to be an art film rife with surrealism and psychological thrills, as well as a mystery that may lose conventional audiences with its non-linear storytelling. Still, it will engage those who are able to pay attention for the full 96-minute runtime. (Admittedly, the film does feel tedious at points, specifically at the midway of the second act.) While at times it is predictable, especially for audiences familiar with psychological thrillers like Donnie Darko and even Fight Club, Buster’s Mal Heart still manages to keep its viewers on edge, and the engaging performance of Rami Malek cements the actor as a leading man.

With Buster’s Mal Heart, Smith proves to be a promising director, and I cannot wait to see what more she has to offer in the future.

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