“The Inversion is coming.”
Buster’s Mal Heart opens with a man (or men) gently rolling on the waves of the ocean in a boat. This calm is immediately contrasted with a man on the run from an armed mob. The face ravaged by paranoia and fear we see in the opening frames does not match the caring husband and father the audience meets in Jonah (Rami Malek). Jonah lives with his wife (Kate Lyn Sheil) and daughter in her parent’s house. They both work to put aside some money to move out, but the graveyard shift at a rarely-used hotel is beginning to drag on Jonah. Long hours with no one to talk to means Jonah’s only distraction is a public broadcast program where a scientist rants about the coming inversion. That night, a stranger (D.J. Qualls) claiming to be “the last free man” shows up at the hotel, seeking to share his vast knowledge of a worldwide conspiracy to the lonesome clerk. The stranger finds no audience in Jonah at first, but persistent money troubles cause him to reevaluate his moral standing.
Marty (Sheil) wants to leave her parent’s home and start renting a house, but Jonah finds her plans a bitter betrayal. He wants to own a piece of land and be self-sufficient on it. Moving into someone else’s property and then paying them for the privilege just rewards “the system” he’s hoping to escape. Clearly, taking in the fringes of am radio and local public broadcast has left him more susceptible to the last free man’s words. Once inspired by the message in the break room, “strive, smile, succeed,” Jonah is further convinced to escape from it all. The mountains of Montana, lensed by Shaheen Seth, need no explanation as to why society can’t compare with nature.
Acting as writer/director, Sarah Adina Smith has a flair for her technical duties, containing Buster/Jonah in the smallest possible corners of the screen in wide expanses. It’s visually alienating and goes to great depths to explain the eventual transition that Jonah makes into Buster. As his mental state begins to disintegrate, the match cuts occur more frequently and jump between all three storylines. It’s a choice that keeps those watching on an uneven keel, but the jump between tones is not handled as well. The jokey tone is undercut by the increasingly brutal, heart-wrenching effects of Jonah’s waning sanity. A local deputy (Toby Huss) prattles on about how Buster’s drawings of The Inversion resemble buttholes, meanwhile, Buster’s breaking-and-entering staycations escalate to holding an elderly couple hostage at gunpoint for Christmas.
Fresh off the success of Mr. Robot, the filmmakers behind Buster’s Mal Heart hope that Rami Malek’s bug-eyed hacker persona can translate to the conspiracy theory thriller they’ve built. Malek does the heavy-lifting, taking an ill-defined character, and carrying the entire film on his back. Yet the little work done to flesh out the narrative leaves Jonah/Buster a cipher looking for answers to big questions, same as the audience. Those desperate for a resolution should turn back now because it won’t get better later.
Smith deliberately eschews audience expectations in favor of the ambiguous, though the film spends a good chunk of the running time holding out on a telling detail most saw coming. Worse yet, it’s a device used many times before in iconic films. If all of this was in service to a greater end, these issues could be forgiven, but the game-playing seen in HBO’s Westworld and Mr. Robot doesn’t have the requisite time here to be fully explored. With long-form television shows, these prolonged queries eventually come with answers, this film, running at less than two hours, just leaves newer questions behind. If everything is a lie, then there’s no distinction between what is to be questioned and believed.
Sarah Adina Smith’s film will certainly get people talking, but it’s due to her potential as a director, rather than the finished product before you. There is a great deal of promise on display in a mixed effort, but I wait to see what future offerings she has in store.