One of the things I love most about living near Toronto is that every September the Toronto International Film Festival takes over the city. The excitement can be felt wherever you go, with rush lines overtaking the sidewalks and pedestrians forming huge crowds to catch a glimpse of Hollywood stars.
Every year at TIFF a group of blockbusters have their debuts as future Oscar contenders begin building buzz. There are also always a host of less-known films, such as the wonderfully original Buster’s Mal Heart, which premiered this past September and comes to select theaters later this month.
I knew nothing about the film going in; I’m a big fan of Rami Malek from his work on Mr. Robot and The Pacific, and I had read rave reviews about writer/director Sarah Adina Smith’s last film, The Midnight Swim. That was enough for me.
Going into Buster’s Mal Heart with as little knowledge as possible is probably best. Part of what’s so exciting about this picture is that even when you think you have the story figured out, Smith switches it up to offer another perspective or another piece of the puzzle.
We open with Buster (Rami Malek) on the run from police, eventually seeking refuge in a cave. Then we flash back to 11 days earlier, following a much scruffier Buster as he breaks into vacation homes and makes bizarre calls to local radio stations with conspiracy theories about the end of the world.
Even more jarring, we then flash back to several years earlier: Buster is actually Jonah, a handsome, well-kept man with a wife and young daughter, living with his in-laws and working exhausting overnight shifts as a clerk at a motel.
One of the strongest aspects of both the script and direction is how expertly Smith is able to balance the surreal plot points with the mundane realities of life as we know it. Watching Buster carry on monotonous and unfulfilling tasks at the motel, having exhaustingly relatable arguments with his wife about their visions of the future and what society dictates regarding how they should live and how they’ll find happiness – these moments are what make it impossible to root against Buster, even when he has a harmless elderly couple bound and held prisoner in the back of their own vacation home.
Those are also the moments that make it so devastating whenever Buster suffers a defeat or loss: a particular scene around midway through the film feels like an absolute gut-punch. Audible gasps throughout my theater were followed immediately by goose bumps and the sudden realization that there are no rules in this film.
Rami Malek is, as expected, superb. With skilful direction from Smith, he turns in a performance that is at times both frightening and tragic. Buster – or Jonah? – goes on a journey that isn’t always easy to understand, but Malek keeps him relatable and plays him with a dark humour and conflicted heart that makes it easy to keep rooting for him.
There’s a third perspective often flashed to throughout the film (it is, in fact, the first image we see) – a man, similar to Buster, adrift at sea.
How everything connects, I’ll leave for you to discover – that’s the journey of the film. What I will say is that regardless of how you feel about the character Buster, or even the non-linear narrative structure, I can’t imagine anyone walking away from this film and truly disliking it. I went to a screening by myself and when the final credits rolled, I was immediately regretful that I had no one to discuss it with. What I discovered as soon as I left the theater was that everyone else who emerged was just as eager to throw around ideas. What did the ending mean? What was the point of it all? Is it sci-fi? A psychodrama?
Buster’s Mal Heart is the type of film that will stay in the back of your mind for days or even weeks after you watch it. It’s an effectively entertaining and thoughtful rumination on how society expects us to live, the effects of loss and unfulfilled dreams, and questions whether we can really ever run away from ourselves.
Heavy stuff, sure. But this film is worth its weight.
Maximilian Conte (@mconte22) keeps Eye Myth contemporary. He is a freelance writer with a background in marketing and a passion for film and television. As a staff writer for SpoilerTV, he has reported on conversations with Billy Bob Thornton, Kathy Bates, JJ Abrams, Angela Bassett, and several other respected actors and producers.