Casting traditional narrative techniques aside, Sarah Adina Smith’s Buster’s Mal Heart follows three separate narratives centering on three men all played by Rami Malek who may or may not be the same person. The first is Jonah, a doting husband and father who works the night shift as a hotel concierge in rural Montana. The work is tough, both physically and emotionally: not only does his circadian rhythms fail to synch up with his nocturnal hours, he’s rapidly missing his young daughter’s childhood because he’s too exhausted to see her during the day. And when an odd drifter self-proclaiming himself as the prophet for an imminent cataclysm known as “the reversal” checks into the hotel, his tenuous grasp on reality begins to snap. The second man is Buster, a mountain man internationally renowned for sneaking into and living in the mansions of wealthy people during the winter while they’re away. Harried and haggard, he nonetheless takes meticulous care of his temporary abodes. What is he running from? Why are the police so avid in hunting him down? The third is an unnamed shipwreck survivor who’s survived on a lifeboat for over three years. Sun-crazed and starving, he spends his days swearing at God in Spanish, first daring, then begging him to end his suffering.
Buster’s Mal Heart regards itself as an elaborate, earth-shattering examination of the nature of reality and mankind’s ability to comprehend both the cosmos and itself. But really it’s a hopelessly pretentious adaptation of the worst Philip K. Dick novel never written. Here is a film so convinced of its own intellectual weight and power that it holds its audience in contempt, explaining nothing as it haphazardly slips from one storyline to the next. Clarity is not a necessity in art cinema—and despite its thriller genre trappings this is an experimental art film, make no mistake—but there has to be a method behind the madness. Smith’s methods are those of tired clichés, the re-purposed philosophical musings of Ingmar Bergman at his most esoteric and Michelangelo Antonioni at his most surreal.
But the film’s greatest outrage is its squandering of Malek’s Oscar-caliber performance in the service of such self-important nonsense. If there was one performance I could compare it to, it would be Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). I find this less than coincidental considering how one of the film’s plots also charts a well-meaning family man’s descent into insanity while working at an isolated hotel. Even in scenes where he’s just standing still behind a desk waiting for customers, he comes across as a pressure-cooker barely keeping itself from detonating. There’s more pain and torment behind his eyes than all the sincere thought and originality in the whole film.