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  • Andres Benatar

Buster's Mal Heart Explained

Exploring The Question of Freedom

Here’s a scenario for your thoughts, you’re a family man. You work hard, or when you are more pissed off and open to complete honesty, you’re tired beyond fucking belief, and any chance you get to rest is enough to make you continually believe that once you go into the rewind mode that is your daily life of working the crappy eight to ten-hour shift for the sake of your family that everything will be okay. But then one night, you feel more tired than usual. A stranger arrives at your hotel. He looks odd, and after refusing to show any ID or pay with a credit card, he then declares himself the last free man. Naturally, an approach of that level will make an average person look at this person as some nut. But then again, insanity is merely a legal term, and one invented from the types of institutionalized structures that perpetuate the delusion only the average man can believe in where the idea of working a shit end job for hours on end will somehow pay off in the long run.

In Jonah’s (Rami Malek) case, the hopes of him earning enough money to buy a piece of land for the family he hopes will prosper are laughable, and yet the narrative of Buster’s Mal Heart isn’t just about the impossibility of an average man. It’s also a tale of choice and the uncertainty many people carry as the world continues to change around them and the daily routine they subjugate themselves to in order to survive becomes more and more unendurable as they continue to hope there is an end in such strife. Sadly, if there’s anything this film teaches, it is that certainty is merely a pipe dream. We can use science to garner facts, or we can believe in the existence of a God who’s known all too well for the same silence we are taught is humility even in the face of constant and mocking suffering.

Regardless of what choice we make, frustration, doubt, and an unnerving desire for an answer will dominate the mind of anyone trying to ascertain the certainty our current age has made clear is nothing more but the bullshit we should’ve graduated away from at the age of seven. Busters Mal Heart isn’t an easy film to digest. Fuck if it is meant to hold the viewer's hand, or tell them what any of us should do in the case of a character like Jonah/Buster, who like any sensible person, wishes for the kind of freedom that allows him to feel the need not portray himself as the conformist head-nodder who works at a job he utterly despises, while equally wearing a polite smile that allows the more financially wealthy and yet significantly less self-aware people to step on him. Now although this brief description may paint Jonah in an understandable manner, which it does, it doesn’t escape from the utter complexity, or lack of singular consistency in the narrative of the film and the philosophical ideas it wrestles with.

It’s nothing new for an independent film to tackle philosophical concepts that will not often be depicted in the traditional mainstream film. At the same time though, when a film as complex as Buster’s Mal Heart jumps between two quizzical narratives, one having Jonah as a workaholic family man struggling to get by, the other as Buster, a mountain roaming fugitive breaking into family vacation homes where he mutters one rant after another about the great inversion, then does confusion become that more apparent. Another segment of the narrative depicts Jonah/Buster as a man lost at seas, whilst bearing a Christ-like appearance of a man reaching the pinnacle of physical and spiritual malnutrition. It’s a lot of stuff to process indeed, but, in addition to the use of a disjointed narrative, the elements of science fiction, combined with the psychological drama mystery element that defines the elaborate and eerie pace of the film still go back to the subject of “The great inversion.”

What The F$Ck Is The Great Inversion? For anyone who considers themselves a 90’s kid, then the subject of the great inversion is all the more relevant. For those born in the ’90s, there can be no doubt as to just how simple life was at the time. Now, when you get old enough, and sadly, we have all realized that a lot of bullshit has been unraveled since then for us to know just how borderline ignorant we all were back then. It’s nobody’s fault of course given that our parents are not the gods we wished they had been from the start. At the same time though, it doesn’t change the fact that there was still a world that was a billion, if not a trillion times smarter than we were. Another fact to take into account is that even when we know that there is a lot of shit we don’t know is probably one of the more horrifying things to acknowledge given how even pondering the potential inevitability of a catastrophic event, the outcome is almost impossible to determine given the multitude of factors that need to be taken into account. In the case of an event like the great inversion, well, imagine a scenario where at New Years' eve 1999, instead of hitting the glorious 2000 that got everyone in your living room New Years' party so excited, you instead see the year 2001. Now, as minor of a numerical error as that may seem, when looking at the world from a post-industrialized framework where technology, its economic scope, and pretty much the potential outlook it maps out for the future is something that cannot be taken lightly, and major disruptions like a year off the calendar alone could disrupt enough of a highly volatile economic structure that has pretty much-defined lives of past, current, and the generations to come as complicated as this concept may seem, the simplicity of it essentially boils down to the significance brought on by the individual’s role in such an environment. Knowing this only further challenges the question of whether any one of us can truly live freely.

In his past life as a family man, Jonah believed being able to buy a piece of land gave him the indication of being able to opt-out of the very system that deluded him into believing he could use the financial incentives it provided him as a means of escape. As Buster, he lives a much more independent life that some would treat as more off the grid when looking at how he continues to rant about an event he believes will come and bring about the collapse of a system he was once a part of till the moment he learned to despise it over the course of a grueling process that only resulted in his awakening and eventual freedom. But that pattern only further poses the question of what is freedom on trial, and what it truly signifies in the objective sense.

Buster’s Mal Heart Is directed by Sarah Adina Smith. In an interview for The Wrap, she discussed how the film is about a man who is split in two. Now, this internal division no doubt pertains to the duality of Jonah and how he is at war with two sides of himself, one being the responsible family man who longs for a type of freedom that can hopefully bring him and the family he works hard to support a better life. The other side is that of the mountain roaming house invading Buster who lives out the freedom that doesn’t seem to provide him the very happiness he believed was possible in his past life. Knowing this only had Smith pose the question of what does it really mean to be free, or if you can be happy as a result of whatever price you had to pay for said freedom. There are enough moments of Jonah narrating what is without a doubt his own internal ideas about wishing to just get into his car and simply drive away. No sense of direction is given to what seems like a melancholically laced urge to escape, and yet, it is understandable for anyone who has lived a life riddled with the types of circumstantial restraints that deny them the feeling that they are actually doing something of real value. At the same time, when taking into account the burden of having too many options such freedom can offer if seized, it only leaves the question of what freedom truly means on an unanswerable note.

There is a disturbing moment in Buster’s Mal Heart where Jonah comes across the blood-drenched bodies of his wife and daughter. A simple glance at this site shows that they have in fact been killed. It’s never made clear who did it, and the only suspect he has about it is the last free man drifter he showed kindness to proves to be nothing more than his own delusion. From that moment on, it’s most likely possible that Jonah was the one who killed them, and even if it wasn’t a conscious act, there can be no denying the end result of such a loss also permitted him freedom from the very responsibilities he was tied to. At the same time though, an equivalent argument about his journey as the freedom claiming Buster is a prison of guilt he is now trapped in as a result of the price he paid for said freedom.

There is nothing simple about a film like Buster’s Mal Heart. In fact, the question of freedom and its true significance alone is nothing short of a word the human species will truly ponder because even if the human species was given a scenario where they had free reign over all their actions, combined with zero responsibility, there would still be a complete lack of freedom given that man would be a slave to his own nature.

Questions tend to speak more than the simple answers people often give themselves as definitive resolutions to the very mind-consuming ideas they cannot help but believe are escape valves. If there is any truly valuable lesson to be taken from a film like Buster’s Mal Heart, then it is the fact of how important the value of a question is as opposed to the satisfactory nature the answer we believe or want to believe can serve as a resolution. In a world riddled with the type of societal chaos, complexity, and constraint that prevents us from feeling like we have a sense of individual autonomy, it becomes that much more important to take a close look at what real value can be derived in such an environment, how it makes us feel, and what we can truly get should we actually achieve the aim we believe by striving through these difficulties. As much as we can place a sense of value on the concept of freedom, the mere realization that it would eliminate all our pain and suffering is not only absurd but even dangerous to a particular extent. There is a value in suffering and how it can create a greater appreciation for the pleasurable value within obtaining something of true merit. With a film as philosophically deep as Buster’s Mal Heart, the content and intricate care given to the narrative not only illustrates director Sarah Adina Smith's intellectual sincerity in exploring the meaning and questions regarding the notion of freedom. But, the fact that in her The Wrap interview, the mildly nervous fidgeting she displayed whilst explaining the context of the film, which most audiences will no doubt find difficulty resonating with, is a testament to both her passion and the internal suffering which no doubt went into creating a piece of art she hopes will speak to people in ways most traditional narratives don’t or fail to even aim towards.

Not all life is suffering, but, avoiding it takes out the very liberating beauty pleasure can grant us. With a film like Buster’s Mal Heart, the idea of freedom itself is framed as an ultimate end to suffering, and even though it is achieved in some sense, the sheer lack of suffering only leaves its central protagonist both lost and longing for a sense of certainty we all hope to achieve as we journey through a life where we must learn to balance pleasure and suffering hand in hand for true value to be forged.

Andres Benatar is resident film expert. You can hear him on the 'Cinema 237' podcast - A podcast for cinephiles.

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