Arts and Entertainment

A Movie As Confusing and Glorious As Its Name

Buster’s Mal Heart chronicles the almost psychedelic overtones of two men in their journeys to discover their true selves.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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By Christine Jegarl

“I can’t believe it.” These are a few of only several dozen words that our protagonist, later to be known as Buster (Rami Malek), utters, and they perfectly summarize the despair the movie summons as a backdrop for its audience.

In the first few moments of the 2017 film, “Buster’s Mal Heart,” we see the identical silhouettes of two men sitting in a small boat with a backdrop of the sun and a glimmering sea. At this time, the identities of both are a mystery and they look more like small toys than actual people. The scene cuts to the roar of a gunshot and a panicked Buster running for his life in what appears to be a remote, mountainous region.

“Buster’s Mal Heart” follows the growing illusions of Jonah (Rami Malek), a family man who works as a night shift hotel concierge. We see him going through the cycles of someone who can barely keep himself together. He struggles to make money in his “dead-end job,” but constantly reminds his wife of their—or rather his—dream to get a farm and live off the land. He is quiet, resolute, and harbors the need of a wild spirit trying to break free of the traditional boundaries given to him.

The movie switches between this and the endeavors of Buster, also played by Rami Malek, to avoid a crew of considerably simple-minded, watered-down versions of state troopers while trying to spread the word about the oncoming Y2K, the prophesied end of the world.

Buster is the exact opposite of Jonah. He is boisterous and leaves reminders of his presence in the way that an animal would. He randomly calls radio talk shows and live psychic readings, trying to convince people that “the Inversion is coming.”

For the second time in five minutes, the title of the movie is shown with its inverted text. The reflection of the title is not a random choice of fun text effects. It’s a revelation to the fact that the movie will constantly be presenting viewers with two dark and different realities.

At first, the film is confusing. We aren’t presented with much information to start with, and at the end of it all, there still isn’t a lot of extra context. There is instead a strong preference to “show” and not “tell,” forcing viewers to play a psychological mind game to piece together the various gaps in the storyline, such as, “Who is Buster? What does he want? Why does he always look like a deer in the headlights? And what’s with his obsession with adult onesies?”

A profound set of events that changes Jonah’s life and possibly turns him into Buster the mountain man is scattered in bits and pieces throughout the film. During early scenes of Jonah in his night shift as a hotel concierge, we see him watching a sketchy, pixelated screen of an aging scientist yelling that “the Inversion is coming!” This alludes to the aforementioned Y2K, or Year 2000 bug.

At the crack of dawn, a tall stranger comes into the hotel asking for a room. Jonah is suspicious as he has no existing I.D. at all and carries a bag full of a questionable white substance. Jonah asks for a name but never gets one. The only reference to this tall stranger is “the Last Free Man” (DJ Qualls). The LFM is already irritating Jonah with his shady appearance and lack of clarity, but insists on telling Jonah about his quest as an “exterminator of glitches.” He fixes them and makes them go away.

The appearance of the LFM marks the beginning of Jonah’s deterioration as the life-altering events that follow drive him to insanity.

The movie is not afraid to delve into the most violent recesses of the conscious mind. It addresses the dark side of human nature in the way Buster immerses himself in his quest to escape the end of the world. Jonah emphasizes what it means to carry out thoughts that many wouldn’t think to perform, such as the accidental murder of his wife and child.

The film portrays the concept of darkness as a mentally changeable substance that allows for activities such as locking people in their basements and pretending to be someone who is long dead to become daily occurrences.

However, this movie tries to be unbiased when it comes to giving the audience members free reign over what they want to think. We see Jonah talking to his daughter affectionately and Buster gently feeding an elderly couple, who are held hostage, in their mountain home.

We receive seemingly intertwined events occurring in the lives of Jonah and Buster, convincing us that they are one and the same, but suddenly, we are not so sure when confronting Buster’s rebellious and sometimes rude attitude, which contrasts with Jonah’s well-meaning and comforting tones.

Everything from Jonah’s encounter with “the Last Free Man” to Buster’s uncanny patience, control, and transformation of self in his search for the meaning of his beliefs gives the audience thinking space.

We are allowed to conceive an appropriate identity for two men, or perhaps only one, that goes against the will of a perceived god and universe. We learn that Buster’s journey is not about him running away from what he did, but rather his quest for the meaning of his life. We are forced to ask questions that can help us define the Buster we know in this movie.

Jonah thinks it’s fine for his daughter to watch slightly age-inappropriate cartoons, so we must ask more questions to understand what contributes to such odd fatherly moments as this and what led to his eventual collapse.

With a movie that favors dark, overpowering tones and a sweeping narrative to carry almost unrelated details of its main characters to light, this film makes for a strange but exhilarating ride.