Ignore the title—Buster’s heart is fine. It’s his brain that’s giving him problems. Breaking into empty vacation homes in rural Montana and pooping in people’s cookware, Buster (Rami Malek) is evading capture from the law, but he’s also—you guessed it—on the run from his own demons.
Buster sports a big Jesus-y beard, but we also see him in a previous life as Jonah, a clean-cut ex-addict supporting a wife (Kate Lyn Sheil) and young daughter. Working graveyard at an airport hotel, Jonah spends too much time listening to the crackpot psychics and screwball conspiracy theorists of late-night television, anticipating some kind of “inversion” that will turn the world on its ear. Most of the time spent watching Buster’s Mal Heart is waiting for the inevitable trauma that induces Jonah’s transformation into Buster.
There are also passages of Buster adrift on an eerily calm ocean in a tiny boat, drinking his own urine, and eating the frogs that have magically materialized onboard. These scenes, one supposes, are meant to suggest Buster’s spiritual state of mind, or possibly it’s the reality and the Montana/Jonah parts are the delusions. Director Sarah Adina Smith tries to hang it all together as a metaphysical puzzle—but any puzzle without a solution is purposeless. What’s more, it seems obvious from the start that we’re spending time inside a deeply troubled mind, where all bets are off.
This subjectivity makes Buster’s Mal Heart a disappointing experience—one of sensations rather than ideas. Malek’s performance is the sole reason to watch it, although the actor’s considerable skill at playing psychologically damaged loners is much better witnessed on Mr. Robot. When the Jonah/Buster schism comes, it’s tough to garner any sympathy for the protagonist at all. Turns out Buster and Jonah might both be jerks.