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Buster's Mal Heart
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by Jay Seaver

"Too much freedom's not good for the head."
3 stars

SCREENED AT BOSTON UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL 19: I like where writer/director Sarah Adina Smith’s head is at with "Buster’s Mal Heart", and I think I’d like the actual movie more if she’d played it something closer to straight, rather than getting cute with narrative gimmicks, black comedy, and other diversions. The central driver of what’s going on with its main character is something that merits a lot of thought and consideration, and making a puzzle out of it tends to deny it that.

“Buster” is what the locals call Jonah (Rami Malek), because they don’t know his name; he’s just a crazy guy who lives in the woods, calling rants in to talk radio, breaking into unoccupied houses when it gets cold in the winter. He wasn’t always like this; a few years back, he was the amiable night manager at a nearby hotel. It wasn’t necessarily comfortable living with his in-laws, but he and wife Marty (Kate Lyn Sheil) figured that this is what would allow them to save up and buy a small bit of property to settle with daughter Roxy (Sukha Belle Potter), living off the land as much as they could. That quest for independence is shared with a guy who starts hanging around the hotel lobby (DJ Qualls); who lives off the grid, not even wanting to give out his name, doing Y2K-compliance work for cash, with talk about an semi-mystical “Inversion” about to come.

It’s interesting that Smith drops that Y2K reference in there; nothing else about the film seems to be pointedly set in that time period, and what plot there is does not hinge much on this guy’s work, nor does it seem like it would be particularly ruined by tech like smartphones. And yet, it’s an important and apropos moment to consider - for all that nothing actually happened, it was a moment when it seemed like “the system” could collapse, something which could feel like a clean start to several of the characters. It’s a freedom Jonah and his new friend crave for various reasons. What initially seems like a laudable desire for self-reliance on Jonah’s part grows stronger even as Marty starts looking at apartments, an arrangement anathema to Jonah’s desire for independence - and, perhaps, too much like the hotel that takes him for granted - with the idea of this “Inversion” taking on mystical qualities, another step on the road to being a talk-radio crank.

The idea that the sort of freedom Jonah craves is either lost or toxic is interesting, and Smith explores that in some interesting ways: The film is set and shot in Montana, though the expected wide-open spaces are hard to find, and it’s obvious that the freedom he wants is not possible with the entanglements of a family, something very clear as the two time periods are contrasted. And while it was probably necessary to go this two-track route for compare and contrast, it inevitably puts some focus on how things got from point A to point B, only to inevitably offer up an answer that is both too familiar a twist and not a particularly good fit for the situation. On top of that, giving “Buster” as much screen time as “Jonah” means manufacturing things for him to do, mostly attempts at dark comedy, which doesn’t really seem to be where Smith’s skills lie.

Rami Malek does his best to execute in both ends, at least, and he’s pretty terrific throughout, whether it’s showing “Buster” as unhinged but too pained to enjoy his freedom or the more grounded work he does as Jonah. That’s where we get to see him as a man of genuine warmth - Smith gives him little scenes that demonstrate how his desire for independence does not come from selfishness or misanthropy - but with turmoil underneath, that every little thing pulls out just a bit. It makes for interesting chemistry with DJ Qualls, as the pair’s characters are clearly in sync with their beliefs but unable to fully connect because of the same, and impressively nuanced ones with Kate Lyn Sheil, who could have easily played Marty as too obviously in opposition to Jonah, but instead shows a marriage with conflict but obvious love (the adorable Sukha Belle Potter as their daughter does not hurt this portrayal one whit).

On top of that, the movie is quite a pleasure to look at, which may come as something of a surprise to those who saw Smith’s no-frills The Midnight Swim. She and cinematographer Shaheen Seth do, on occasion, get a chance to just point their cameras at some nice scenery, although there’s often sorrowful about when they do, making it clear that Buster can’t enjoy it, while there can be something embracing about places like the hotel swimming pool. The whole team, from Smith to the folks working on the soundtrack, kick a little more in for the heightened sequences, including and especially the opening which indicates that, for better or worse, something unusual is coming up.

I wish I could say it was better or even the sort of worse that one has to see to believe, but all too often, "Buster’s Mal Heart" winds up in an unfortunate middle, trying to balance uneven halves and inserting one particular plot twist that negates far more than it adds. I still like where Smith’s head is at, though, and she and Malek certainly make this one interesting and worthy, if not quite a favorite.

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originally posted: 04/04/17 01:58:57
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 Boston Underground Film Festival For more in the 2017 Boston Underground Film Festival series, click here.

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  28-Apr-2017 (NR)
  DVD: 18-Jul-2017

  N/A (15)


Directed by
  Sarah Adina Simth

Written by
  Sarah Adina Simth

  Rami Malek
  DJ Qualls
  Kate Lyn Sheil
  Lin Shaye
  Toby Huss

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