Of all the film festival traditions, few are as exciting as the secret screening: a handpicked, hotly anticipated film kept under wraps until the moment the lights go down. For exhibitors, the benefits are obvious, building a Barnum-like sense of mystery around the already grab bag-like atmosphere inherent in a film festival. For the audience, the appeal is twofold: the thrill of gambling on a complete shot in the dark, and the trust placed in the powers that be to make good on your investment of twelve bucks and a few hours. Probably everyone entering the Brattle last night had some sort of theory as to what we were about to see; my money was on a preview screening of Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire (as both Prevenge and A Dark Song prominently feature past Wheatley collaborators); other guesses I overheard included the much-buzzed cannibal drama Raw, Adam Wingard’s Death Note adaptation, or perhaps even Baby Driver, the new film by friend of the Brattle Edgar Wright. More than a few speculated that this was all a ploy to get a room full of cineastes to watch the new Power Rangers movie.
As it turns out, none of these guesses were correct. Instead, we were treated to a less hyped film: Buster’s Mal Heart, starring Mr. Robot’s Rami Malek. In retrospect, this was probably the smarter move on their part; rather than sneak in something most people would have tripped over themselves to see in the first place, they used the slot to highlight something they believed in which may have slipped through the cracks otherwise. At least, that’s the case for me: I had never heard of the film going in, which allowed me the rare opportunity to view it with completely fresh eyes.
Buster’s opens with Malek apparently at the tail end of a police standoff, hiding among some rocks on a snowy mountain under fire from local law enforcement (led by Toby Huss, a long way from Pete and Pete). From here, we flash back ten hours. Malek, it seems, is an infamous hirsute mountain man nicknamed “Buster,” known for squatting in unoccupied cabins, rearranging photos and furniture, and harassing radio call-in shows with his incoherent theories of the “double sphincters” of space and time (imagine a cross between Jodorowsky and Kaczynski). These scenes segue into a second set of flashbacks; before he was Buster, Malek was a family man named Jonas, trying to save up enough money to buy a plot of land in the wilderness for his wife and young daughter. Unfortunately, Jonas’ resources and sanity are taxed by his job working the graveyard shift as a hotel concierge. As Jonas’ sanity begins to slip, he meets a mysterious drifter (perennial that-guy DJ Qualls), who shares his apocalyptic visions of Y2K, as well as the proceeds from his racket as a petty jewel thief. From here, the narrative bounces between these two periods, as well as an enigmatic third stage, which finds Jonas/Buster adrift at sea.
That’s pretty much all I can tell you, both because anything else would constitute a spoiler, and because I’m not sure I could coherently describe it if I tried. This is not a knock on the movie, but rather a testament to the long game being played by writer-director-editor Sarah Adina Smith. Special emphasis should be placed on that third part of Smith’s hyphenage; this is a carefully assembled movie, with scenes, shots, and lines placed selectively to reveal information rather than to follow a linear story. In Malek, Smith has found the perfect vessel for this sort of story. With his bulging, watery eyes and blank demeanor, Malek manages to be simultaneously emotive and opaque; we manage to know everything he’s feeling, without entertaining the slightest delusion that he’s a reliable narrator. Both Malek and Smith are masters at letting the viewer know they’re not getting the full story, but keeping them guessing as to what’s being hid.
That said, there are moments of Buster’s which feel slightly derivative: Malek’s character brings to mind what I understand of his work on Mr. Robot (which I’ll admit to never having actually seen – I know, I know), and the hotel scenes in particular draw inevitable comparisons to both The Shining and Fight Club. But these are offset by the faith Smith displays in her audience by never quite spelling things out for them. I’m fairly certain all the information is there, but it will take all but the most incisive viewers more than one viewing to fully grok. As I got home from the screening, I decided that, on second viewing, I would pay strict attention to Buster’s ramblings at the beginning of the film. That I was already thinking about a second viewing is a testament to Smith’s mastery at creating a tantalizing puzzle box of a film.
All of which is to thank BUFF for the inspired decision to keep this film a secret. Movies like Buster’s work best with as little as possible (so, um, sorry if you’ve read this far), and in a world of trending hashtags and Tomatometer ratings, that opportunity is exceedingly rare. See Buster’s Mal Heart if you can – just block out a couple more hours to see it again.
Buster’s Mal Heart
dir. Sarah Adina Smith
Part of the Boston Underground Film Festival