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Buster’s Mal Heart is three short stories with one mind-bending twist

Buster’s Mal Heart is three short stories with one mind-bending twist

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Tribeca Film Festival

Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special-event releases.

Buster’s Mal Heart, a thriller that’s being released later this month, has gotten buzz mostly for starring Mr. Robot’s Rami Malek. That’s partly because it’s an indie film directed by a relative newcomer, Sarah Adina Smith, whose feature debut was the 2014 drama The Midnight Swim. But it’s also because Buster’s Mal Heart defies easy description. The trailer suggests it’s a psychological thriller in which Malek’s character uncovers the truth about a cataclysmic event called “The Inversion.” This is mostly right, but it’s irrelevant. In fact, Buster’s Mal Heart is an interwoven, multi-genre series of stories that builds toward something very big and odd — often cleverly, but not always coherently.

What’s the genre?

Grim psychological thriller crossed with dark indie comedy, wrapped in arthouse speculative fiction.

What’s it about?

In one of three tenuously connected parallel storylines, a mountain man named Buster (Malek) survives by breaking into empty vacation homes while ranting about Y2K to radio shows and phone-sex operators.

As Buster is hunted by police, we jump to his memories of being family man Jonah — who spends his nights working at a dreary hotel, and his days in a claustrophobic house with his hostile in-laws. When an eccentric drifter (The Man in the High Castle’s DJ Qualls) shows up espousing a millenarian theory called the Inversion, he sends Jonah down an increasingly dark and lonely path.

Meanwhile, in some other time and place, Jonah is on a lifeboat adrift at sea. As each arc progresses, the links between them become increasingly evident and extremely strange.

What’s it really about?

The gradual fragmenting of one man’s mind, the fine line between a desire for freedom and a slide into insanity, and the convergence of millenarianism and class warfare. Also, Rami Malek’s ability to rock a massive beard.

Is it good?

Buster’s Mal Heart is a delicate balancing act between several genres — not mixed as part of one plot, but delivered in long strings of intercutting vignettes. As a collection of short films, it’s solidly enjoyable. As a high-concept mind-bender, it’s bizarre and ambitious. When you combine the two, it’s interesting, but doesn’t quite resolve.

Malek is the only actor on screen for much of the film, playing three characters in radically different circumstances. He brings the same unsettling calmness to each role, however bizarre the circumstances get. As the kind but frustrated Jonah, he’s a long-suffering man worn down by isolation and the minor indignities of mid-level service work. In the boat, he’s calmly accepting of his strange, lonely existence. And as the filthy and wild-haired Buster, his inscrutability is played for laughs, as he indifferently defiles rich vacationers’ empty playhouses.

The story the trailer promises is almost a red herring

Buster’s story is the most unique mini-arc, but the character can be too much of a blank slate, with motivations that seem externally imposed rather than developed. Jonah, meanwhile, stars in a very good take a cliché psychological thriller formula, complete with the genre’s familiar sickly chartreuse tint. It’s closest to the film the trailer promises, building to a twist that’s well-executed, but obvious if you’re used to watching Malek in Mr. Robot.

But this is a bit of a feint, because the actual climax is far weirder. While the two arcs above link together in clear ways, the vignettes from the lifeboat make it impossible to turn them into a neat single narrative. The moment all three threads do connect, the film shifts genres, recasting the meaning of earlier scenes.

Like the film as a whole, the twist is difficult to describe, and it leaves interesting ambiguities to explore. At the same time, it short-circuits some of the individual arcs’ ideas, including a running theme of characters using petty crime (vandalism for Buster, theft for Qualls’ character) to get back at systems they resent. The ending will make you question everything about what you’ve just seen, but one of those questions is, “Did any of it matter?”

Buster’s Mal Heart is grasping for something big, even if it doesn’t entirely get a handle on it. It’s far from a mainstream movie, and not a guaranteed cult classic, but its quiet weirdness makes it a worthwhile experiment.

What should it be rated?

It’s not rated, but since Buster’s Mal Heart’s mostly sticks to understated sex and violence, I’m left trying to remember how much characters swear. That said, it’s intense and think-y enough that it feels like an R-rated film — or at least one I’m not sure teens would have the patience for.

How can I actually watch it?

Buster’s Mal Heart will get a limited theatrical release across several US cities starting April 28th; a schedule is available on the site.