Rami Malek looks like a man in a perpetual state of panic. You might be tempted to compare his wide, expressive eyes to those of a deer in headlights — if the rest of his face weren’t so tightly controlled. Malek’s nonverbal acting serves him well in his breakout role, the TV series “Mr. Robot,” in which he plays a revolutionary hacker with fraying sanity. In “Buster’s Mal Heart,” a bizarre drama from writer-director Sarah Adina Smith, Malek’s talents serve a much more personal, ultimately touching story.
There are three separate timelines to “Buster,” all featuring Malek, and Smith only slowly reveals the links between them. We first see him as Jonah, a mild-mannered husband and father who works as a concierge in a remote mountain hotel. He yearns to live off the land and away from civilization, a goal he achieves in the second timeline. Sporting a scraggly beard, he now lives as a hermit, breaking into empty vacation homes during the off-season (for which the locals have nicknamed him “Buster”). We’re also introduced to Jonah on a boat in the middle of the ocean, alone and alternately cursing God and begging him for a speedy death. Smith eventually links these threads, interweaving elements of the supernatural, apocalyptic conspiracy theories and a possible psychotic break.
In lesser hands, “Buster’s Mal Heart” could easily have been obtuse — the sort of film that values weirdness over storytelling. Smith is a shrewd screenwriter, however, building emotion in a linear fashion, even as the film jumps around. The result is a puzzle of sorts: one meant to answer the question of how a devoted family man could come to live in such total isolation. Most of the clues are oblique.
Sometimes the film takes on the elements of a thriller. At one point, Jonah meets a mysterious, sinister stranger (DJ Qualls), who warns him about Y2K (the story is set in the 1990s). In hindsight, we can see that his paranoia, however seductive, is baseless. Still, the stranger intrigues Jonah, and it is through him that Malek’s character develops the foundations of the angry, disturbed mountain man.
“Buster’s Mal Heart” achieves resonance through repeated imagery. A scene in which Jonah and his daughter are seen playing with a plastic toy frog, for example, suddenly cuts to the boat on which he’s eventually stranded, which contains live frogs. There is no explanation given for the frogs, suggesting that Smith favors evocative symbolism over plausibility. Biblical allusions appear throughout the film, although some of them are a touch too pat. Whenever Jonah talks about being “inside the beast,” it feels as if Smith doesn’t quite trust her audience.
With a title that evokes metaphoric heartbreak made literal, “Buster’s Mal Heart” imagines what might happen if a man’s core separated in two. How would these malformed halves function without their complement? There is no satisfactory answer, and yet “Buster’s Mal Heart” holds up, despite the lack of tidy solutions. Peace may be impossible for Jonah/Buster, yet Smith’s film suggests that mutual understanding — especially when reeling from heartbreak — might be enough.
Unrated. At the Angelika Pop-Up at Union Market. Contains strong language, violence and sexual situations. In English and Spanish with subtitles. 96 minutes.