It's been a minute since I've had the pleasure of sending you into a dark theater to trip out in the immersive glow of a bizarre story, but writer and director Sarah Adina Smith's latest feature, Buster's Mal Heart, delivers the opportunity.
We first meet our protagonist, Buster, huddled in the Montana wilderness as he's hunted down by lawmen for reasons unknown to us. The film was shot in Kalispell, which is nice (look out for a brief but perfect appearance by hometown actress Lily Gladstone), but this isn't your typical Last Best Legend of the Fall Runs Through It look-at-our-Big-Sky landscape showcase. Think Twin Peaks (remember when Bob screams, "You're going back to Missoula, Montana!") meets Donnie Darko on his way to Barton Fink's motel room with the bloody corpse and sweating wallpaper.
Buster's Mal Heart tells a nonlinear story that cuts liberally between two stages of a disturbed man's life. Long before he huddled in a cave, Buster was a mild-mannered hotel clerk named Jonah, with a wife and young daughter. He worked the night shift at a motel that seems to be somewhere near Glacier Park International Airport. The guests are generally rich out-of-towners on their way to their vacation homes in the mountains, with the exception of a strange drifter known only as "The Last Free Man" (DJ Qualls), who shows up one night and puts crazy ideas in our protagonist's head about an upcoming catastrophic event known as the "inversion."
It's the late 1990s, you see, when the creeping unknown of the big Y2K switch bothered a few people (including me, a lot), but mostly everyone went on with their lives. (I can't tell you how disappointing it was to have my teenage paranoia go so unrewarded.)
- “You call this a plague?”
Much of what makes Buster's Mal Heart so fascinating belongs to the charisma of its lead, Rami Malek, from USA Network's Mr. Robot. He's got this mysterious, brooding face that you would immediately classify as handsome if you saw him at a party, in real life, but which seems on the big screen like some kind of lucky mistake, like he burgled his way onto the set and they went ahead and put him in the picture anyway.
Jonah's a strange guy from the start. He wants his daughter to learn Spanish alongside English (to the consternation of his Montana-born mother-in-law), and he dreams of moving his family somewhere off the grid where they can escape the daily grind. His traditionalist Christian wife (Kate Lyn Sheil) carries the unsung female burden of practicality. She knows there's no escape from the rat race (they can't afford to buy land on his hotel clerk salary, etc.), but to Jonah, she just seems like the killer of dreams.
And then there's the hypnotizing way Smith feeds us the story, with strange images from the past and the future. We see Jonah behind the front desk, surrounded by garish gold trim and frightening carpet, then his family's legs are flitting underwater in the hotel swimming pool, then he's despondent on a boat in the middle of the sea with a full beard—it's like a puzzle that's been put together all wrong, because it's coming from the mind of a mad man. The plot is hard to follow on a first viewing, but try not to get hung up on the particulars. Thinks of Buster's Mal Heart as a visual poem about the suffocating sadness of a world in which we're victim to unfair rules. How does it make you feel?
Buster's Mal Heart opens at the Roxy Fri., May 19.