“I just wish I could get some traction,” Jonah (Rami Malek) confesses midway through “Buster’s Mal Heart,” to a visitor (DJ Qualls) to his hotel in Montana, a way station rather than a destination where people in search of natural beauty spend the night to enjoy modern amenities. Between Sarah Adina Smith’s second feature and “Mr. Robot,” Malek is fast becoming an icon of 21st century disillusionment and doesn’t disappoint here, though he’s thoroughly disappointed as a concierge who is edging towards checking out of a world he sees as largely rigged against him, compensated not nearly enough for working the graveyard shift to move his family out of his wife’s (Kate Lyn Sheil) parents’ house and encouraged by Qualls’ computer science engineer and self-described “Last Free Man” to begin to wonder when the singularity is coming.
It’s a notion that Smith introduces early in “Buster’s Mal Heart,” finding Jonah first on the open water before he disappears like a computer glitch, only to be resurrected a moment later running from the authorities in the frozen woods. At first, you’re not entirely sure whether it’s the same person, particularly when he can be seen shortly after that boasting a “Grizzly Adams” beard breaking into a cabin for survival and given the nickname Buster on talk radio for his apocalyptic rants to morning call-in shows, but clearly distraught from having his own life fall apart, Smith pieces the different eras and personas together as if Jonah’s reclaiming his sense of self, only it may not be someone he or the world at large might recognize when he’s whole again.
Fittingly, “Buster’s Mal Heart” is just as unclassifiable, a bold, original thriller that lives up to the promise of Smith’s first film, “The Midnight Swim” and then some. After making the most of a single setting and a strong cast in her debut, the writer/director’s second film never feels less than epic despite concerning the story of just one man, whose mental unraveling would seem to tear apart the very fabric of the universe. Her instincts for what is cinema don’t appear to be derived from other films, but rather a truly different way of looking at the world — like “Midnight Swim,” the fringe voices on local public access are a constant presence in the film and she alternately amuses and unsettles with a diseased view of cultural conformity conveyed with the conviction of David Lynch, as the past’s hold on her characters is evident in their outfits and residences and the fear of deviating from the larger society a tension so palpable it needn’t be acknowledged verbally.
However to make something so surreal to work, it must have its bearings and Smith’s strong sense of human nature allows the confrontations with the strange and unknown to be deeply felt. Once again, she gets surprising and unguarded performances from her cast, particularly Malek, whose rare ability to express a world-weariness and feel otherworldly is most potent. Throughout the film, there’s also an insightful marriage of man-made and digital vocabularies — one of the most effective moments coming when Jonah suffers a breakdown scored not with classical music to suggest emotion, but instead twitchy electronic aural scraps as if he’s had a system malfunction — and the continual juxtaposition of a visual surface crisply lensed and cleanly framed by cinematographer Shaheen Seth and a cacophony in the score and sound design that suggests something’s lurking just beneath is among Smith’s many sophisticated stylistic touches that gets under the skin, both Jonah’s and ours.
Jonah’s fear that the world’s become too mechanical may not be entirely justifiable – that’s one of the many provocative questions Smith leaves up to the viewer — but there’s no doubt in a time when most films have, “Buster’s Mal Heart” is something to celebrate — and to ponder.
“Buster’s Mal Heart” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will play twice more at the Toronto Film Festival on September 12th at 6:15 pm at the Scotiabank Theater 9 and September 16th at 12:45 pm at the Scotiabank Theater 3.