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Buster’s Mal Heart (Blu-ray Review)

Loaded with visually interesting and arresting shots as well as some muted, but solid performances from its leads, it is hard to say that Buster’s Mal Heart is bad, but it is very easy to come to the conclusion that it is simply not good. The sophomore effort from writer/director Sarah Adina Smith (The Midnight Swim) commits the fatal film crimes of being too boring and too overburdened with trying to seem deep at the expense of giving the audience something onto which to actually latch. Buster’s Mal Heart is a couple of beats away from being something worthwhile, but at the very least, audiences will want to talk about it after seeing it.

Film 

Buster’s Mal Heart starts Rami Malek (“Mr. Robot”) as both Jonah, a hotel night clerk trying to get by and provide for his wife and child, and as Buster, a mountain man who breaks into vacation houses and rants on call-in radio shows about an apocalypse of sorts related to Y2K. Presumably both characters are the same person with time and a broken mind separating them, but it isn’t completely clear which version of the character is real. Jonah spends most of the film slowly falling into a sleep-deprived semi-consciousness, with time and people appearing to sneak up on him. We are treated to most of Jonah’s story from what could be flashbacks in the mind of Buster as he gallivants around in the well-adorned Montana mountain homes of the rich.

The narrative jumps around a lot, shifting in time and location occasionally. It never really gives the viewer a chance to get fully comfortable and that can often be to its credit. In a film that was made better than this one, keeping the audience on its toes would be important for the point in the film where it all comes together and we are supposed to give out that “ahhh, you got me.” But that never comes. The only twist that isn’t just a full-stop-non-explanation is too heavily telegraphed and lacks enough connecting oomph to impact the story being told. So, when the film jumps right away from that scene a moment after it happens to show more of Buster’s hijinks, the structure of the film can be seen more as a hindrance than a useful style tool to keep the viewer guessing.

There is a third character played by Malek, that I didn’t mention above, because he is never given much to do other than sit afloat at sea on a boat and mumble to himself or shout at god. This character is clearly supposed to be Jonah after the main story has happened, but before the Buster parts, but it is also, and very heavy-handedly supposed to tie into Jonah, the biblical figure who, as the story goes, defied god and was cast into the belly of a large fish. The opening song of the film has lyrics about being in the belly of a whale. Jonah talks about how he is in te belly of a whale. There is water and fish imagery throughout the entire film. And he even asks god to just kill him, as the biblical character Jonah does. So, like, we get it… he’s Jonah. The issue is that while that might be interesting and help make sense of the fascination Marty, Jonah the hotel clerk’s wife, has with god and the bible, it isn’t really tied into what is going on in the story, so it comes across more as something that the director wanted to put on film, but didn’t want to make into one coherent story. Instead, we get three, Buster the mountain man, Jonah the tired man, and Jonah the lost man.

The acting in the film is good. Rami Malek is fine as both Jonahs and Buster. His expertise with a wide-eyed blank stare is showcased extensively as the night clerk. Alternatively, his large, expressive looks as the long-haired and rough bearded Buster give the film a few moments of comedy between seemingly unending bouts of boredom. DJ Qualls (“The Man in the High Castle”) is probably doing the best as far as acting goes in the film. He is a sometimes desperate, sometimes conniving conspiracy theorist, who helps to drive the paranoia levels up when he is on screen. Jonah’s wife Marty is played sweetly and often concernedly by Kate Lyn Sheil (“House of Cards”). In the films few emotionally tinged bits, she is a genuinely good person to have around doing the lifting in the scenes. There isn’t a whole lot of dialog in the film, as a distinct portion of it is spent watching Jonah or Buster sit around. So, it is nice that when people do talk, there are some solid performances to behold.

Where a film like this could have generated intrigue in its audience, it instead opts for confusion and false depth. If anybody has ever seen Richard Kelly’s The Box, it kept coming to mind while watching Buster’s Mal Heart. It isn’t necessary for your film to spell everything out, but when you conflate intrigue with confusion, you do end up making a film that seems smart, because it is subverting the viewer’s expectations, but fails to be anything more than a couple scratches of the head a short conversation and a “I guess it was all about the Inversion after all,” before moving on.

Despite its narrative flaws, Buster’s Mal Heart is quite beautiful from a technical aspect. The shot compositions beg to be compared to classics, the locations in the Montana mountains are breathtaking, and the coloring evokes a falseness in the hotel, a naturalness in the wilderness, and a loneliness in the sea. If one were to watch the film as a moving piece of visual art, one might find much more to enjoy than when one turns the sound on and tries to follow along. There is a lot to be said for these skills, and I hope Sarah Adina Smith gets an opportunity to shoot more films and compose more great shots.

Video 

Encoding: MPEG-4 AVC

Resolution: 1080p

Aspect Ratio: 2.39:1

Clarity/Detail: Incredibly clear and precise. This is aided by some very good camera work, but the shots of the woods and the empty hollowness of a hotel at night are almost lifelike in their clarity

Depth: Great depth. Not meant to look 3D, by any means, but even shots that could normally seem flat are deeper than expected.

Black Levels: Black levels are good, with no noticeable crushing, even with a lot of night scenes.

Color Reproduction: Color reproduction is great. There is some intentional off-normal colorization in the film, but and even that is clear and well-produced

Flesh Tones: Flesh so real you can taste it

Noise/Artifacts: No noticeable artifacting or noise. It is a very crisp blu-ray.

Audio 

Audio Format: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, Dolby Digital 2.0

Subtitles: English SDH

Dynamics: Sounds great. Sound dynamism is pretty on point here. It will never be used as a reference disc for a surround system, but the audio is still great.

Low Frequency Extension: Very little use of the LFE, but a few shotgun blasts give the sub something to do and it sounds clean

Surround Sound Presentation: Not a lot of sound coming from around, as it is mostly straight on shots of the main character, but the score plays in the rear speakers and that helps add to the environment.

Dialogue Reproduction: Dialogue is clear and accurate.

Extras 

Deleted Scenes (10 mins) – A handful of deleted scenes that don’t really add or take away anything from the main feature. Just some stuff that was seemingly cut for time.

Trailers (5 mins) – A teaser and a full trailer for the film. Who cares?

Summary

While the problems with trying to do too much and too little at the same time ultimately make the film a bit of a chore, the visuals are pretty stunning and the acting is good. While it might bring about a conversation after viewing, there isn’t really enough going on for Buster’s Mal Heart to be the must-talk-about, must-analyze film that it thinks it is. If you don’t mind boring and confusing, its visuals are enough to encourage a watch, but this Blu-ray doesn’t have anything on it that makes it a must-have by any means.

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I like to be challenged to think about things, so I studied Philosophy in college. Now I am paying for it.

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