There’s a certain wickedness to “Buster’s Mal Heart,” a bizarre, unconventional, and unique visual experiment in existentialism that manages to never come across as pretentious nor self-indulgent. Sarah Adina Smith pens and directs this bold, mind bending thriller about a sorrowful man (Rami Malek) who is suffocating at the hands of his own existence.
This is not a movie for everyone as it’s extremely strange and bizarre, eventually evolving into something even more horrific, puzzling, and disturbing than its already overwhelmingly dark and depressing atmospheric tone of genuine despair and loneliness would first suggest.
Malek gives an Oscar-caliber performance as Buster / Jonah, a man who was once a hardworking dad and husband but is now internally wrestling with his deep psyche as he feels as if he’s been split in two. We see glimpses of the different identities from his own point of view, from a Spanish-speaking fisherman lost at sea to an unsuccessful family man trapped in a dead-end job working the late shift at a third-rate airport motel to a feral mountain man who breaks into lavish vacation homes for fun. Malek is fantastic at shifting from persona to persona as he struggles with the good and evil in himself and wrestles internally to reconcile his lost soul.
A glimmer of hope shows up in the form of a conspiracy theorist drifter called The Last Free Man (in a deliciously creepy turn from DJ Qualls), a mentally imbalanced wanderer who delights in playing tricks with Jonah’s mind. As the man spirals even more rapidly out of control, lines between what’s real and what’s imagined begin to blur beyond recognition. At times the story can be complex, convoluted, and even upsetting, but it never becomes lazy with its storytelling.
There is much religious imagery peppered throughout the story, including an abundance of water and baptism metaphors, and a dreamlike sincerity in the gutsy exploration of bold ideas and provocative themes. The film works because its story is edgy and haunting, the fractured art house visuals are nightmarishly abstract, and the entire low budget project is so well made that you’ll find yourself completely consumed by the mystery.
This is one unsettling movie that I guarantee will inspire many deep, philosophical conversations after viewing.