Buster's Mal Heart (2017) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Buster’s Mal Heart (2017)

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A mountain man known as "Buster" lives off the empty homes of the rich in-between calls to anyone who will listen about the end of the world.  He wasn't always this way, and the man once known as Jonah had a life he cared for.  Sarah Adina Smith wrote the screenplay for and directs Buster's Mal Heart, and stars Rami Malek, DJ Qualls, and Kate Lyn Sheil.

Jonah - also known as "Buster" (Rami Malek) - doesn't have a bad heart, no matter what the title of Sarah Adina Smith's follow-up to The Midnight Swim (tied for best of 2015) might suggest.  At least he wasn't born with a bad heart.  Going to work by night, spending what little time he can spare during the day with his wife Marty (Kate Lyn Sheil) and daughter Roxy (Sukha Belle Potter), Jonah is making the best of a system designed to keep him running in place the rest of his life.

Buster's Mal Heart is a story of heartbreak, one that tells a story of bone-deep oppression and how the lie of the American dream pushes its citizens too far.  I could speculate on just what Jonah is pushed to do, but that would be demeaning to the conditions I see him working in on a night-to-night basis.  Dirty dishes, oblivious bosses, coworkers able to take advantage of his work ethic, a mother-in-law more interested in her granddaughter learning English than spending any time on Spanish.  These are the microaggressions that fill Jonah's existence, feeling like he only has his wife and child to live for, and slowly looking at the cracks of the ceiling keeping him down in the hopes he'll provide a life for them someday.

Rami Malek is a once-in-a-lifetime talent working with the similarly special Sarah Adina Smith, and they bring out the best in each other.

I don't know what I was expecting from Smith's second film.  I wasn't prepared for the exposed nerve of Jonah's pain filling every crevice of Buster's Mal Heart.  In Malek, Smith has found a performer able to match her sadly uncommon sense of empathy.  Combined, the two do for fractured nonlinear narratives what the trio of women did for The Midnight Swim's approach to found-footage - turning what could have been a one-note trick on the heart and mind into a film that will stay with me for a long time.

Smith plants the seeds for Jonah's heartbreak early on a beautiful silhouette of two men on a rowboat while the sun and its translucent twin hover eerily overhead.  A world with two suns is unnatural, not for our planet, and one must overtake the other in time lest we all burn out - reflecting the struggle of the two men in the boat we'll come to know.  There's also hints of the apocalyptic mindset Jonah will come to sympathize with in that world with two suns, and a meeting with a stranger named Brown (DJ Qualls) who claims to know how the world is ending while bearing a striking resemblance to a preacher on the television.

I've now explained everything and nothing.  Smith, who also edited Buster's Mal Heart, keeps Jonah's pain in the ever-annihilating now that happens to shift between different timelines.  When Jonah still had some stability in his life, Smith focuses on the dirty and cracking aspects of his home and job with never satisfied customers (a woman who also looks a bit like his mother-in-law) haranguing him at every turn.  Malek turns all his inward anxieties outward for the second timeline, where Jonah has become "Buster" after suffering some unspecified trauma, and makes the completely reasonable decision to make use of the rich folks' cabins while they're away most of the year.  In this second timeline "Buster" marinates in his pain, sitting in tubs of dirty water with toys that remind him of who he used to be, and Smith cuts from one timeline to the next with matching reminders of how he can't catch a break when he works for a hotel with resources to spare.

The pivoting point for Buster's Mal Heart is likely to differ from one viewer to the next, but my mind keeps jumping back to that unsettling first encounter between Jonah and Brown.  Malek's fantastic as normal, yet it's Qualls who unearths murky depths to his normally affable geeky roles.  Qualls plays Brown as a sort of proto-Infowars consumer, a man obsessed with the universe curving in on its own waste while doing little to contribute himself, and behind his intense stare lays a man searching for someone to say, "I understand," while Jonah has no idea of the consequences for saying he doesn't.  I feel this turning point in part thanks to the great soundtrack by the incredibly named Mister Squinter.  As Qualls approaches a manic ferocity just by moving some napkins around, Mister Squinter's music creeps in that recalls '90s techno-thrillers stripped to the bare conspiratorial essentials.  Brown may be crazy, but he's got a narrative with an end, and Jonah's in dire need of some light at the end of his suffering.

DJ Qualls, in his brief screentime, shows dark depths to his normally affable geeky roles that's more Dennis Hopper than Steve Carell.

Buster's Mal Heart might have been an overwhelming experience were it not for the nuanced relationship between Jonah and Marty.  Their scenes are a place of solace for the viewer with Smith adapting the handcam approach of The Midnight Swim along with some of the same dialogue overlapping into separate shots.  Sheil's performance is subtle compared with the exposed nerve introversion of Malek and the coked-up thinly veiled threat of Qualls.  There's a caution to Sheil's work, empathizing with Malek's Jonah even as she remains cautious of the discontent lurking underneath his smiles, emphasizing the steady give-and-take of a relationship where each partner has sacrificed something to be with the other.

Above all, Smith recognizes the sacrifices of working class America.  I'm not talking about the faux affectation of Manchester by the Sea, nor am I talking about the upper middle-class Trump voters adopting the mask of the working class to exercise their bigotry.  Smith sees the struggles of the people of color who keep our country moving in spite of our subconscious efforts to destroy them.  She sees their pain so clearly, and with Buster's Mal Heart visualizes the conditions they live in along with the tragic consequences of being treated like the fecal matter Buster leaves in pots.

This is only Smith's second feature-film folks, and displays a grasp of technique along with her empathetic view of people who deserve love.  Her's is a future I can believe in.

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Buster's Mal Heart (2017)

Screenplay written and directed by Sarah Adina Smith.
Starring Rami Malek, DJ Qualls, and Kate Lyn Sheil.

Posted by Andrew

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