In the middle of a calm ocean, shot wide, there is a tiny rowboat, with two figures sat aboard facing one another. As Tom Waits’ Starving in the Belly of A Whale fills the soundtrack, we see the pair’s images flicker, judder and fragment, before vanishing entirely, as though they were a momentary digital glitch in a sea of tranquility.
Writer/director Sarah Adina Smith loves aqueous imagery. In her feature debut The Midnight Swim (2014), the deep waters of a lake served as mysterious conduit between life, death and rebirth – and the rowboat opening of her latest, Buster’s Mal Heart, situates us both literally and metaphorically at sea, before we are plunged in medias res with protagonist ‘Buster’ (Remi Malek) in flight – or in fugue – from a cordon of armed men in the wintry Montana woodlands. Shot in the arse, ‘Buster’ seeks refuge for the night in a cave, and an intricate series of flashbacks reveals not only the last few days leading up to this bleak New Year’s Eve on the mountains, but also his more distant past as married father Jonah (a Biblical name strongly associated with starving in the belly of a whale) working the graveyard shift in a hotel.
Here water, as well as providing a portal-like point of associative transition (via baths, swimming pools, lake and ocean) between disparate scenes, is a signifier of the fluidity of identity. “I used to be somebody else”, Jonah’s wife Marty (Kate Lyn Sheil) tells a church congregation, attesting her past life as a drug abuser – and incidentally introducing the film’s central theme. Jonah too is a figure caught in between. Like Marty, he has tried to put a criminal history behind him – and he is also stuck between two cultures, told off by his white American mother-in-law (Lin Shaye) for trying to teach his two-year-old daughter Roxy (Sukha Belle Porter) Spanish as well as English (“I think she’s perfectly capable of learning both,” he insists). Jonah is also caught between his dream of building a lakeside house where he could live off-grid with Marty and Roxy in freedom and self-sufficiency, and the reality of his life as a cog in the corporate machine. “That was not me,” he says apologetically, after responding with violent anger to Marty’s suggestion that maybe they should just be pragmatic and move into an apartment instead. “Yes it was,” Marty whispers. Jonah may be a devoted husband and father, but there is another, darker side to his personality.
These tensions come to a head in the hotel where Jonah works. It is a transitional space through which people pass on their way to somewhere else – as ‘Buster’ will do later with other people’s empty holiday homes – and it is also a psychological space, like the Hotel Earle from Barton Fink (1992). In the hotel, forced to swap day for night, Jonah sleepwalks through his long, quiet hours alone in something akin to a dream state. When a stranger (DJ Qualls) drifts in looking for a place to stay, Jonah, though at first reluctant to accommodate him, finds the conspiratorial, apocalyptic rants of this “last free man” chime with his own beliefs – and help pass the time. Soon Jonah has entered a recidivistic partnership with the stranger, robbing wealthy guests of their jewels and petty cash. Yet sleeplessness is taking its toll on Jonah, who starts to feel trapped in his work and in his marriage, and who senses the approach of an event – ‘the Inversion’ foretold by the stranger, and by wackos on late-night television – which will turn his world upside-down.
Buster’s Mal Heart is an intense character study that comes in the guise of a Lynchian enigma, as a certain brand of toxic masculinity is shown to be just part of one man’s divided self. Watching multiple narrative strands unfold in a cross-cutting mosaic, the viewer is assigned the task of reconciling these different pieces into a singular picture of a man in conflict with himself – and although Jonah/’Buster’ may be responsible for horrific, unspeakable acts, he remains a figure of considerable sympathy, for whom we still desire, however fancifully, a deliverance from the coming storm. This is a sensitive insider’s view of mental breakdown, akin to Omer Fast’s Remainder (2015) and Gareth Tunley’s The Ghoul (2016), where the central character’s own deeply disturbed state of delusion is figured as a looping puzzle for the viewer.
Infected with the paranoid Y2K spirit of millenarianism, the film begins – and ends – with the end of the Nineties and the beginning of the Noughties. Aptly, its narrative structure looks both backwards and forwards, Janus-like, showing that it is indeed possible to speak both its languages, and to follow its two different trajectories simultaneously to heaven and hell. Meanwhile its protagonist’s race to the bottom (in a film obsessed with sphinctres) is presented against a background of cosmic ruin, even as Malek perfectly embodies the different facets – caring, creative, creepy, crazy – of a complex individual. The result is a heady tragedy, elegantly shot (by Shaheen Seth), expertly edited (by Smith) and confidently mounted, with just enough loose threads to leave you wandering its circling corridors bleary-eyed long after the closing credits have finished rolling.
© Anton Bitel