It becomes clear early on that at some point in Jonas’ life, he has taken leave of his senses. Or, rather, his world has come apart at the seams, and his mind has done its poor best to reconstruct it using odds and ends. Told in the not necessarily linear way that the mind operates when flitting from thought to thought, the searing and very dark satire, BUSTER’S MAL HEART, jumps from place to place, and time to time, with the inscrutable logic of a madman who is sure that he is the only sane person left on Earth.
Jonas, aka Buster (Rami Malek), is a mountain recluse, known for a brief clip on a surveillance camera, and his penchant for leaving the vacation homes that he invades during cold weather tidier than he found them. Mostly. He’s also known for the long rants in which he indulges on talk radio, explaining about the coming inversion of the universe. He has always been, notes the deputy (Toby Huss) chasing him, non-violent, though one may safely surmise that because said deputy and other law enforcement shooting at him in the wintry mountain woods, something may have changed. Flashback to 10 days before, and to a time before that and a time before that as Jonas’ backstory coalesces into a seemingly random elements that by the end of the story will have become a whole.
Before being cornered in a cave, Jonas was a family man, working nights as a concierge in a remote town. It left little time for his beloved wife (Kate Lyn Sheil) and two-year-old daughter, Roxie (Sukha Belle Potter). The pressure of separation, the sight of affluent guests leading empty lives of dissolution on their way to those ci-mentioned, and rarely used, vacation homes, gets to Jonas. It’s the life of quiet desperation Walt Whitman conjured, and Jonas is about to follow a different drummer in the person of a mysterious stranger (DJ Qualls) with no credit cards, no id, and a refusal to give his name. He describes himself as the last free man, and it is from him that Jonas, initially wary, learns of the coming universal inversion, the second one to be exact. The first having been brought about by Eve in the Garden of Eden by tempting Adam with something other than a piece of fruit. That first inversion, so says the stranger, between drinks and snorts, is why the little guy can never get ahead, will always be trapped by the system, kept down while being told he can win.
Is the stranger the trigger for Jonas’ breakdown or manifestation of it? Either way, the summation of all his heretofore inchoate frustrations clicks for him, and the two begin a clever series of burglaries designed as much to pay back the capitalist oppressors as it is to enable Jonas to finally buy that piece of land for which he dreams and live life as a free man with his wife and child by his side. With the encouragement of the people on television apparently egging him on, he finds renewed meaning in his life, despite the bad dreams of being marooned at sea continuing to plague him. Or is that the reality, and the rest just a dream?
Malek is superb in an impudently intelligent script by director Sarah Adina Smith. At one moment, immaculately groomed and the essence of kindness helping the overnight housekeeper fold sheets, the next a perfect father teaching his child Spanish while swallowing his resentment at the mother-in-law (Lin Shaye), in whose home he and his family live, question the wisdom of being bilingual, and the suitability of the cartoon Roxie is watching. He is also a master of comic pathos as the wild haired, hirsute and all but mute Buster (evoking perhaps Buster Keaton?), who rants on telephones, but remains stubbornly as he cooks a gourmet dinner for the two elderly hostages whom he has tied up with Christmas lights. He has a gravity that is as absurd in the circumstance as it is heartbreaking. The gradual steps toward Jonas’ break are summed up not just in interludes such as the one with Shay, but also with the hollow bonhomie of his supervisor (Mark Kelly), an impotent cog in a corporate wheel who has muddled ideas about compassion. There are also the all too identifiable moments of boredom in a job that has essentially no meaning, summed up in the sight of Malek in a carefully composed series of shots, moving incrementally along a wall with a clock noting the passage of time in all its emptiness.
Smith has succeeded in making us see the world through Jonas’ skewed perception, rendering everyone else’s view somehow off kilter instead. Wickedly wry, eminently empathetic, and deliberately provocative, BUSTER’S MAL HEART poses many questions, some more uncomfortable than others. All worth pondering.