Rami Malek’s economy of gesture and almost otherworldly features—his high cheekbones and wide, bulbous eyes—are so inherently entrancing as to imply a beneath-the-surface complexity to even the most innocuous of characters. The actor commands nearly every frame of Buster’s Mal Heart, and he so forcefully holds your attention as to convince you that the narrative adds up to something substantial. Writer-director Sarah Adina Smith’s film, portraiture and mystery in one, alternates between two timelines of a man’s life to build up intrigue as viewers gradually discover how Jonah, a lowly hotel concierge, transformed himself into Buster, a bearded mountain man.
The introduction of a mysterious drifter (DJ Qualls) who rants about Y2K bringing about something vaguely apocalyptic called “the great inversion,” coupled with Jonah’s increasing fascination with the man’s madly messianic vision, is meant to suggest a desire on Jonah’s part to escape his utterly conventional life with his super-devout wife, Marty (Kate Lyn Sheil), and daughter, Roxy (Sukha Belle Potter), and embrace a more off-the-wall existence. But Smith is so obsessed with conjuring up and maintaining the aura of Jonah’s mental imbalance that she never bothers to fill in the blanks of his past that might have made the man’s desires feel more than just notional. With Jonah initially depicted as mindlessly pursuing the standard middle-class comforts of owning a home and settling down with Marty and Roxy in a quiet, rural neighborhood, Smith hints at but ultimately refrains from commenting on the soullessness of middle-class social conformity.
To her credit, Smith successfully maintains an almost surreal atmosphere as she brings us closer to her main character’s heart of darkness. The film also exhibits a streak of delicious black humor, most memorably in a couple of scenes that depict Buster taking an elderly husband and wife (Nicholas Pryor and Sandra Ellis Lafferty) hostage during the holiday season; he generously cooks for them even as he has them tied up around the dinner table. Throughout these and other scenes, Malek’s knack for subtly highlighting the loose screws beneath his character’s seemingly bland exterior is so captivating that it almost distracts from the fact that Buster’s Mal Heart seems to confuse narrative gimmickry for the sensitive evocation of an inner life.