Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Apr 27, 2017 6:50 pm 
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Over the mountain and down the wormhole

It should not surprise anyone who has reveled in Rami Malek's stunning performance in the lead of the TV series "Mr. Robot" to find the protagonist he plays in Buster's Mal Heart is pretty wigged out, and also ​compulsively watchable. This is a welcome opportunity to write about Malek​.​ H​is​ big-screen appearance ​is ​every bit as ​strong​ as the "Mr. Robot" ones, ​just set earlier in time and in a role that's less extensively developed. Smith has some fascinating, if scattershot ideas, but it's hard to imagine them being anywhere near as compelling with anybody else playing the lead. Rami Malek rocks​. His presence hypnotically knits together this artful split-time portrait by Sarah Adina Smith of the making of a madman.

Yes, like "Robot's" creator Sami Esmail, Malek's of Egyptian descent, but that has all along seemed incidental to this sui generis actor. His curious mix of adorable, tightly wired, spaced out, and troublingly disturbed is his own, unrelated to ancestry. The dramatic possibilities for this talented young actor are great if he isn't typecast by his multiple Grammy-winning performance as Elliot Alderson and his unique physicality. Okay, he's a character actor. But in Buster's Mal Heart, which he actually signed on to before "Mr. Robot," instead of being​ techno-brilliant, as there, he has a ​whole convincing ​layer of upbeat, clean-cut normality as Jonah, a young dad in a numbing job​ - a benign aspect all the more unnerving ​by how​ rapidly ​it ​peels away. Thanks to oscillating editing (by Smith herself), from early on we ​get to know Jonah in another​ ​later persona as "Buster," a junior Unibomber type, a lawless loner living in fancy unoccupied ​Montana ​vacation homes he serially busts into - hence the nickname - while raving to himself, sometimes in Spanish, about "The Second Inversion," an apocalyptic wormhole.
Jonah's existence has something of Jack in The Shining about it. To support his little family, he's been forced to work perpetual night shifts at a gloomy hotel on the other side of a resort area mountain from th​e​ vacation mansions. He​'s been fantasizing hopelessly about a piece of land by the water to raise his little girl (the remarkable Sukha Belle Potter) with his Born-Again wife Marty (Kate Lyn Sheil), and escape living with Marty's unbearable self-righteous mom (Lin Shaye). But since he lacks even a GED, his prospects of getting "traction" financially are nil. In the​ trapped​ isolation of the night shift he's pushed into mania by long discussions with a weird free-loader​ who turns up late one night​, a​n itinerant​ computer ​consultant​, who won't give his name (the passing strange DJ Qualls), whence comes the idea of ​"The ​​Inversion​"​ and Y2K. Jonah keeps this guy ​in ​an unregistered room for long enough to involve him in his own late night hanky panky​ as well​, meanwhile soaking up his crazy ideas even as he ostensibly rejects them.

All this nutty millennial stuff and our awareness of Jonah's transformation(s) into Buster (and more) come on pretty early. And that's good, because while we can imagine Qualls' batshit insanity flying high in Jonah's sleep-deprived, frustrated mind, it's too thin to engage us for very long. The cross-cutting between straight​,​ tie-wearing, striving Jonah and the later Unibomber-ish Buster house-surfing and (on another temporal level) fleeing a fleet of armed sheriffs, is fun to watch, while we're eagerly waiting to find out ​just ​how the leap from the one to the other ​is going to happen.

The Shining atmosphere is heightened when Jonah's boss lets him have his wife and kid stay in the hotel with him on a weekend "staycation" but since he's got multiple chores to do, she (Kate Lyn Sheil) is stuck isolated in the room with their little girl, watching an archaic animation of a man ground up into a little nugget on TV, alternating with mad preachers. But at this point the action is beginning to stall.

Only it doesn't stall, but​ intensifies and gradually​ spins out. Smith doesn't offer any solutions, just multiple curves and a pleasing confusion - pleasing if it works for you​, at least​. Maybe she has more story lines than she knows what to do with - or that non-cult audiences ​will ​know how to handle. But she has​ impressive tools: ​ not only her own sly editing, whose rhymes and contrasts​ can​ repay repeated viewings, but her husband Shaheen Seth's beautiful cinematography, Paula Fairfield's rich sound design​,​ and Mister Squinter's bubbly electronic scor​e - all serving to enhance Malek's luminous​, versatile​ performance.

Buster's Mal Heart, 96 mins., debuted at Toronto Sept. 2016; eight other festivals including Austin Fantastic Festival, the San Francisco International Film Festival, and Tribeca in spring 2017. General US release 28 Apr. 2017. AT 26 Apr. School of the Visual Arts Theater NYC; Angelica Film Center NYC 28 Apr. In San Francisco at Sundance Kabuki Theater 5 May 2017.​

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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