Buster’s Mal Hart is a fever dream of a movie, told in a constant state of insomnia but with us never growing tired. It is incredibly bizarre and unconventional and may not be suitable for some; I did see two people get up and leave during my screening maybe about halfway through (that may also have been because the straw in my soda was creating obnoxiously loud friction behind them, but I’m pretty confident that they left because they didn’t dig the movie.) But this is a film that reaps its own rewards if you give it a chance. It isn’t profound, but it is insightful.
The movie follows Buster (played by Rami Malek), a graveyard shift hotel clerk trying to balance his job, his familial duties and a looming existential crisis without losing his mind. And he’s doing a pretty decent job of it at first, save for some nasty baggy eyes and crippling loneliness. But Buster is visited by a mysterious stranger (as all great strangers are) in the middle of his shift one night, who babbles about being caught in the “machine” and that he is the last free man. Buster buys into his mumbo jumbo and too starts to become disenfranchised with the 9-to-5 world (or in Buster’s case, the 12-9 world.) He becomes distant and abrasive to his wife and children as he plunges further and further into his “What does it all mean? What’s the point of it all?” philosophical ponderings.
Happening at the same time in the film are Buster’s future after he’s become separated from his family, scraping by as a scavenger in the mountains and also as a gaunt man drifting away on a boat in an endless sea. The scavenger scenes are quite funny as Buster digs through empty vacation homes for food and entertainment. The lost-at-sea scenes a bit more religious and philosophical, kind of like Life-of-Pi crossed over with a Bad Robot episode.
The film feels like equal parts Donnie Darko, Fight Club and Office Space, characterized by its reality-bending hypotheticals, nihilistic outlook on life and some biting humor channeled through Buster’s clueless co-workers and supervisors. It doesn’t necessarily reach the same storytelling greatness of any of these films, but it far more visually stunning than any of them by a long shot. Written and directed by Sarah Adina Smith, the movie could have easily fallen apart in less-gifted hands. But Smith’s sense of space and character help this movie coast by like a gentle dream.