Buster’s Mal Heart is indie sci-fi at its most abstract, taking elements of more populist, influential films like Fight Club and The Matrix and filtering them through philosophical exchanges and coolly stylized compositions to produce something that’s somehow simultaneously more weighty and more slight. Director Sarah Adina Smith, who broke through with the similarly ambiguous The Midnight Swim in 2014, takes a cerebral approach to the material, referring to “spiritual fission” and “individual responsibility in a mechanistic universe” in her official statement on the film. Whether you find this sort of thing pretentious or intriguing is, essentially, a matter of taste.
The main character, whose consciousness appears to be split into three distinct identities, is played by a quietly intense Rami Malek, who serendipitously took the part shortly before his breakout role in Mr. Robot. We’re initially introduced to him as a nameless man covered in long ropes of hair and a matted beard set adrift in a lifeboat, drinking his own urine and cursing God in Spanish. (Malek, who is of Egyptian descent, is playing a character who’s supposed to be Latino; whether this is a deliberate mind-fuck is unclear.) Then we meet the second incarnation of this person, a seemingly schizophrenic drifter nicknamed “Buster” who survives in the mountains of Montana by breaking into empty vacation homes and availing himself of the canned goods and extra changes of clothes stored within. The effect is sort of like The Last Man On Earth, but serious.
The third and main incarnation of the character is Jonah, a Christian family man who works nights at a nearly empty hotel and lives with his ex-addict wife Marty (Kate Lyn Sheil) and their young daughter at his judgmental in-laws’ place. Jonah dreams of buying a tract of land and leaving the world behind, making him a prime candidate for the techno-revolutionary mumbo jumbo being spouted by Brown (DJ Qualls), a mysterious drifter who begins hanging around with Jonah during his shift. Brown, a pencil-necked geek in an oversized leather jacket and big ’90s glasses who snorts cocaine out of a little glass vial he keeps in his pocket, calls himself “the last free man,” and claims to work as a sort of freelance engineer who fixes glitches in the Matrix-like ”system” controlling existence in order to bring about “the great inversion.” And poor naive Jonah eats it all up.
Or maybe the inversion is really happening. Buster’s Mal Heart jumps around in time as well as in space, alternately suggesting that Jonah/Buster may be suffering from a mental illness (he literally turns things upside down in the houses he visits) and confirming that he’s been offered up as some sort of cosmic sacrifice to fix a snag in the fabric of life itself. Contrasting these heady proposals is a streak of goofy humor, reflected in visual gags like a slice of pizza floating in a swimming pool and in the scatological and sex jokes scattered throughout the film. This absurdity is further buoyed by the insertion of occasional faux-VHS conspiracy theory videos and deliberately dated newscasts—the film is set sometime in the ’90s, if only to work Y2K into the conspiracy-minded patter between Jonah and Brown sitting in a dark hotel bar in the middle of the night.
It all seems like it should add up to something profound, or profoundly silly. And that’s okay: Zen koans have fart jokes in them, too. But Zen koans are also remarkable for their simplicity, cutting through layers of meaning to reach a cosmic truth. Beyond vague anti-establishment sentiment—which should appeal to Mr. Robot fans, for what it’s worth—it’s not always clear what Smith’s end game for the serpentine narrative actually is. And when all (okay, most) is revealed, the answer is, perhaps inevitably given the amount of buildup, a bit underwhelming. Is profundity for its own sake still profound? There’s a rhetorical question for you.