I’m the prophet of the Second Inversion!
—Brown, “Buster’s Mal Heart”
Rami Malek doesn’t do as many movies as other actors of his status in Hollywood—but when he does, I pay attention (& he apparently gets an Oscar). He’s one of those intense & uncanny performers who seems to attract really esoteric-type mindfuck roles. The 2017 indie flick Buster’s Mal Heart is one of those movies & Jonah/Buster (see, we already have some instability in the identity department) is one of those roles. Spoilers ahead!
I could say to you that Buster’s Mal Heart is The Shining crossed with Mr. Robot crossed with Donnie Darko, but I might be misunderstood. It isn’t that certain aspects of these projects—resonances, if you will—influenced this movie. Rather, Buster’s Mal Heart is if you literally cut out pieces of The Shining, Mr. Robot, and Donnie Darko and sort of “stitched” them together. It’s like the filmmakers just took Malek’s character from Mr. Robot and just placed him in an extended version of his “reality.” Which is to say: the movie is almost like a “continuation” of Mr. Robot.
However, the overarching theme of the entire thing is the story of Jonah from the Bible. That’s a lot to tuck into one film.
And so here we have soft-spoken and somewhat socially-awkward Jonah, the night caretaker of a very Shining-type sprawling hotel. Doing the night-shift, his sleep cycle is all messed up and he’s taking caffeine pills to stay awake. Luckily, he has “fringe” public-access programming to keep him up, including one show featuring a manic scientist babbling about “The Great Inversion” and how our universe really isn’t real.
One day, a weird dude arrives at the hotel (and he looks a little bit like the crazy scientist dude, but it’s not him). This guy claims to be privy to an overarching conspiracy and is totally red-pilled; like the scientist, he reiterates the “unreality” of our universe, and how we are all essentially trapped in the “matrix.” Though he’s incredibly sketchy and has no ID, Jonah ends up being buddies with him and checks him into the hotel illegally. (and if you are a fan of Mr. Robot, you can pretty much tell where this is going)
One thing to note here is how several scenes from The Shining are just about “lifted” and placed in this movie, during these sequences between Jonah & the drifter. It’s like Jack Torrance and the “Caretaker”…but the roles reversed.
Jonah becomes more and more concerned about being one of the “sheeple.” And while he’s certainly seeming to take that slow dive into madness, the stuff he observes around him—the dead-end, cyclical nature of the “loop” he’s in financially, what shitty hypocrites some people in authority can be, how empty the so-called American Dream and its “rewards” are, and so on—are not totally “imaginary.” He doesn’t want his small child to be caught up in that loop. But how to escape it? His weird friend and the TV scientist know: you have to jump out of the time-stream entirely. And this “Inversion” is certainly the opportunity to do it.
And yet Jonah keeps trying to valiantly struggle to maintain that American Dream, if not for him then for his family. He tries to express his beliefs here and there, in timid ways, but doesn’t want to rock the boat.
Now: while this is all going on, we see clips of Jonah’s other “life” as Buster: a crazed “mountain man” with a rifle who calls into talk shows with his conspiracy theories. And the narrative flips back-and-forth between the lives of compliant and helpful Jonah, and long-bearded anarchist Buster. We don’t know what accounts for this discrepancy between the two personas, or exactly what the timeline is.
And while that’s all going on, there is another Jonah or Buster on a lifeboat, severely sunburned and surviving on drinking his own pee and eating raw a “miracle” visitation of frogs.
Looming over it all is this idea of the “Inversion,” and of time sort of blowing up or falling apart; everything turning upside down. This is the Donnie Darko stuff.
And the Mr. Robot stuff, of course, is that there is no crazy conspiracy friend—Jonah, who most likely has some sort of split identity, has hallucinated him. Exactly like in Mr. Robot, to the point where the friend even has the same “look” as the character of Mr. Robot in that show. This would all almost feel like the biggest ripoff to me, if it wasn’t for the fact that I enjoy resonances between different projects.
It’s the “time breaking” aspect of the film, though, that sets it apart from even the twist of Mr. Robot. By the end of the movie, the “reformed mountain man” Buster and the lifeboat guy try to kill each other, and Jonah literally splits into two people with no explanation whatsoever.
And what we have here is the story of the Biblical Jonah retold—with the protagonist feeling he has a message to give (in the case of the movie, The Great Inversion), but not wanting to “rock the boat” (like, literally, the boat). He ends up getting “driven” to give the message anyway, creating alternate personas who can do what he can’t (again: exactly like the Elliot/Mr. Robot relationship). And there are “hints” within the narrative that there might be some sort of “higher force” that wants Jonah to take the road less taken, and is willing to mess shit up to do it.
If any of these ideas interest you, definitely check Buster’s Mal Heart out.