Buster's Mal Heart: Why you should remember the name Rami Malek

By Karen Gordon

Rami Malek - star of the darkly-quirky and frustratingly ambiguous indie thriller Buster’s Mal Heart - has an ability to be perfectly still and yet project two or three conflicting emotional states simultaneously.

Rami Malek

Rami Malek

Even sitting still and looking calm, he gives off the air of someone who is also, on another level, vibrating at a high frequency as if he was waiting to panic and bolt off camera in a nanosecond.
That emotional cauldron serves him well in TV’s Mr. Robot, where his role as Eliot a watchful cyber security engineer and hacker has earned him an Emmy win and numerous nominations.

It undoubtedly played a part in his winning the role of Freddie Mercury in the upcoming biopic.

And it’s equally valuable in what amounts to dual roles in his first feature film lead. 

“Buster’s Mal Heart” is written, directed and edited by the award winning American indie director Sarah Adina Smith (The Midnight Swim), a filmmaker who makes good use of the raw talent Malek brings to the plate.

When we first encounter Malek, it’s as Buster, a bearded mountain man on the loose in Wyoming being pursued by the police with extreme prejudice. Shots are fired. From the conversation, we get that Buster has been known to the police for a while, but something has happened to ramp up their search. 

The film shifts to Malek as Jonah, a night manager at a local motel, who lives at his in-laws’ with his wife (Kate Lyn Sheil) and his beloved toddler daughter. The relationships in this nuclear family are easy and affectionate. With the in-laws, not so much. Money is an issue for Jonah’s little family, and a source of tension. They don’t have enough to find a decent place of their own, and so they’re stuck.

On top of that, the overnight shifts at the hotel are taking a toll on Jonah. He’s exhausted and strained. He asks his boss for relief, a better shift, but is not taken seriously.

Into his weary life comes a disheveled man, played by DJ Qualls. He has no name. (In the credits he’s called “The Last Free Man.”) It’s the late 90’s. Y2K is looming, that date when fears are, the computers will stop functioning, and the nameless man fills Jonah’s ear with all kinds of end of the millennium conspiracies, conflating the Y2K with the law of eternal recurrence and other more esoteric ideas.

For reasons that aren’t clear, perhaps the fatigue has worn down his judgement, Jonah agrees to let the man with no name stay in a room overnight.  It’s the beginning of a short-lived, but influential relationship.  The man’s ideas start to trouble and obsess Jonah. 

Intercut with Buster, the conspiracy-obsessed mountain man, and Jonah, the family man, is a third story line (maybe make it two-and-a-half roles for Malek).  We also see a sunburnt Buster/Jonah in a rowboat, lost at sea and from his state, it appears he’s been drifting for a long time. Buster-on-the-ocean has a past story as well, that is briefly dealt with.  

But the question remains, who is the real man? Is he Buster of the title with a ‘mal heart’, whatever that means?  Or is Buster part of Jonah’s fracturing mental state that has left him out to sea or lost in the mountains? 

The story unfolds in such a way that bits of all three story line are revealed with one major revelation that could explain one, but not all of the stories. And as it goes along the film moves from a fairly straight forward one, to pick up a slightly surrealist tone.

There’s something interesting being worked out here, but what it is never seems to come together.

Each incarnation of the character plays out bits of their own story, but in which direction does Smith want us to look for the answers? The film looks good. Smith has a nice command of tone.  But to what end?

The problem with Buster’s Mal Heart is that Smith lays out a compelling character and drops some crumbs. Obscure is fine if there’s an organizing principal, a direction that she’s pointing in to help pull things together. Unfortunately, there’s not enough connective tissue to help us pull things together, or to make us care enough to sort it out.
And more’s the pity. Through it all, Rami Malek turns in a fine performance, full of nuance and subtlety. But even that’s not enough to fix a movie that doesn’t have a clear point.

Buster's Mal Heart. Directed by Sarah Adina Smith, with Rami Malek, Kate Lyn Shiel and DJ Qualls, now playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Karen Gordon is a freelance writer and broadcaster. She’s currently heard Friday mornings as the movie reviewer for CBC Radio’s Metro Morning. She’s been covering movies, music and aspects of popular culture for more than twenty years on radio, television and in print. She also works as a creative producer, series story editor and writer  for documentary and lifestyle television. She is also the co-writer for two award-winning cookbooks, David Rocco’s Dolce Vita and Made in Italy. Karen still gets a little thrill every time the lights go down and the movie begins.