Year: 2017
Director(s): Sarah Adina Smith
Writer(s): Sarah Adina Smith
Region of Origin: US

Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1
Rating: Unrated
Color, 96 mins

Synopsis: A family man’s chance encounter with a conspiracy-obsessed drifter leaves him on the run from the police and an impending event known as The Inversion. (Source)

Over the course of existence, our lives can be defined by the experiences we gather, and then our memory of these singular experiences, which shift perspective and meaning as time goes by. Sarah Adina Smith’s Buster’s Mal Heart, among other things, is an ambitious attempt to recreate this fundamental truth, blending fractured narrative with tragedy, conspiracy theories and wild eccentricity. Smith’s latest is a film unlike any other, a bold vision that finds human truth within the unfathomable order of nature. True to form, this isn’t something you simply watch, nor is it a film that lets you in on all the answers – rather, it’s a cypher for the feelings we can’t quite put into words, and an acknowledgement to how isolated this world can feel. Star Rami Malek is in top form, bringing Smith’s heady ideas to life with a trio of fierce performances, and resulting in a man shaped by grief and torn to extremes. Bottom line, this film’s the goods, one that challenges us to question the very nature of reality, while also thriving on its own wavelength.

Loosely put, the story centers around a mountain hermit dubbed Buster (Rami Malek). Elusive and enigmatic, the man wanders Montana’s wilderness, living off the land and surviving winters by breaking into remote vacation homes. He regularly calls into talk radio shows, with wild theories about an upcoming event known only as The Inversion. Known mostly as a quack, who Buster is and what set him on this lonely path is the central mystery of the film, but not its only conundrum. As Buster stays one step ahead of his pursuers, parts of his past are slowly revealed. Linking past and present, are visions of a man (also Malek) stranded on a boat. Is this Buster’s future, or something else altogether?

As I alluded to earlier, Smith’s film is a challenge, but an inviting one, a fresh reinvention of what we expect from cinematic narrative while also dissecting human experience. Most of the story has to do with perception, featuring a twisty premise that Smith plays into in a smart way. The narrative is fractured, while non-linear and alliterative editing allows for some clever poetry, both visual and thematic. Because of the film’s impressionistic qualities, the story, or stories within also manage to transcend genre – there are definite sci-fi or thriller elements to certain segments (including a sub plot about the Y2K bug paranoia), but what ties it all together is a dramatic portrait of a man split in two by past trauma. In that sense, the story is a poignant way of looking at how we cope and deal with what we can’t understand, along with our constant search for meaning in understanding. Despite all the heady themes, there’s still a great deal of black humor involved, and a pace that feels urgent.

In terms of performance, there aren’t any weak links, but this really is Rami Malek’s film, since huge stretches involve his character alone and left to his own devices. Like Buster, Malek delivers a significant transformation throughout, going from caring, but overworked father to someone past the point of desperation. Malek is the type of performer who can say so much without words, and its through him that this character’s journey is something we feel more than something that needs to be told explicitly. Rounding things out, DJ Qualls plays an eccentric conspiracy theorist only known as The Last Free Man, while Kate Lyn Sheil’s Marty is someone from Buster’s very different past – the two help to break things up and bring out different qualities from Malek’s already dense well of versatility.

You may have noticed by now that this review is pretty cryptic. Smith’s latest really deserves to be experienced for what it is, and getting too deep into specifics just wouldn’t be fair. What’s easy to say, though, is that in just her second feature, Smith has proved herself a unique voice to be reckoned with, creating a dense, but intimate portrait that dares to look beyond what we think we know. This film hits home on a number of levels, urging us to get involved not only emotionally but through it’s interplay of subversive genre trappings. Definitely be one of the year’s more original films, Buster’s Mal Heart is a puzzle that hooks us with its distinct brand of cosmic and emotional riddles, a film for those of us searching for something beyond what we can see or understand.