Netflix UK film review: Buster’s Mal Heart
Sarah Adina Smith8
Ivan Radford | On 26, Aug 2017Reading time: 4 mins
Director: Sarah Adina Smith
Cast: Rami Malek, Kate Lyn Shell, Toby Huss, DJ Qualls
Watch Buster’s Mal Heart online in the UK: Netflix UK / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / iTunes
In the year that Twin Peaks has returned to our screens, it might seem odd to lament the lack of weirdness on our screens, but the revival of David Lynch’s series has highlighted just how ruddy normal so much modern TV and cinema is. If that keeps you awake at night, then Buster’s Mal Heart is for you.
This dark psychological thriller follows Jonah (Rami Malek), a family man who works at a hotel. The rooms are damp. The corridors are empty. The TVs are full of static. It’s no surprise that what keeps him up at night, apart from his gloomy evening shifts, is the theory of an impending apocalypse, known as “The Inversion”. That’s taught to him by a wandering stranger (DJ Qualls), a guy who proclaims himself the only person free from the system of our capitalist, consumerist, computer-tracked world. Qualls’ outsider walks and walks with the confidence and certainty that only the truly deluded possess, and, soon enough, Jonah is in his thrall, beginning the slip down a slide to insanity.
Fast forward several years and Jonah is now Buster, an eccentric mountain man who spends his winters breaking into empty holiday homes and living off their leftovers. Sporting a beard worthy of Jesus and a righteous passion to boost, he phones into local radio stations warning them of The Inversion. Then he does a poo in casserole dish and leaves it on the kitchen counter.
A lot of the pleasure of Buster’s Mal Heart lies in watching Rami Malek get to do such unusual things – and that’s saying something, given his breakthrough role came with Mr. Robot. This is his first lead film role since that series, though, and he throws himself into this strange, new world with unwavering commitment and dizzying intensity. This is a movie that’s entirely driven by his fragmenting mind and Malek is the perfect hinge on which things can pivot around – he walks about slowly, with a sickly gait and half-awake stare, to the point where all or none of it could be taking place in a daydream, in between manning the hotel’s front desk.
We see him with his wife (Kate Lyn Shell, who crucially manages to tap into the same, very precise mood) and daughter, before going back to his bearded self in the present – and that contrast is almost worthy of two actors, as, eventually, smiling, speaking and other social norms become a visible effort for the detached madman. Capable of either silence or loud ranting, it’s no wonder the local police are after him (watch out for Halt and Catch Fire’s Toby Huss as the chief leading the hunt).
If Malek is the hinge, then director Sarah Adina Smith is the force that makes it work – she crafts a whole universe around her lead’s enigmatic performance, one that is hypnotically eerie and quietly tragic. Framing him against the abandoned hotel recalls The Shining’s foreboding atmosphere, while his race through the woods is almost as otherworldly as The Revenant. This is story of binaries and opposites, of juxtaposition between sense and nonsense, and a string of superb match-cuts jump us between the various planes – a teasing slither of organised composure that only highlights how disorienting this all is.
Throughout it all runs a powerful sense of the inevitable, one that’s instilled by the back-and-forth between the past and present: DJ Qualls’ prophet warns of the impending Y2K bug, something we all know amounted to nothing. But it doesn’t matter whether something is true or not: it’s believing it that makes it real. And no matter what the flashbacks say or show, we know that these conspiracy theories have changed Jonah irreversibly. The end of his world isn’t night: it’s already happened.
That synchronising of form and content, of actor and director, is the kind of skilled storytelling that made Martha Marcy May Marlene linger long in the brain after watching. Buster’s Mal Heart is more ambiguous than that, which may frustrate some, but as it slowly forces our viewpoint on the world to turn upside down, Buster’s Mal Heart (‘Mal’ is bad in Spanish – even the title hints at something foul in the centre of his existence) is an absorbing ride into the unknown, one that confidently leaves you adrift in an ocean pondering the significance of what’s not there. At a time of homogenised blockbusters, it’s a treat to see something so uncompromisingly odd and so boldly assured of its own vision – Twin Peaks fans just got a new favourite director to watch out for.
Buster’s Mal Heart is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.