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Rami Malek's New Film Explores the Shattering Effects of Trauma

We talked to filmmaker Sarah Adina Smith about her thought-provoking movie 'Buster's Mal Heart.'
Well Go USA Entertainment

Buster's Mal Heart, a psychological indie thriller directed by Sarah Adina Smith, asks questions about the universe without giving any answers. With Rami Malek in the lead role, the film parallels his breakout performance in USA's techno-thriller Mr. Robot, as both protagonists fight society and their own minds. However, in this movie, the main character also challenges something larger: fate.

The film follows a Montana man named Jonah who, after experiencing a tragic trauma, is literally split into two people: the paranoid homeless Buster who's convinced Y2K will end civilization, and a dying man lost at sea who only speaks Spanish. According to Smith, the film asks whether Jonah is mentally ill or if he succumbs to his losing battle with his own dark destiny.


Fitting in the now popular genre she describes as "a mindfuck with heart"—which has become more mainstream with TV shows like Mr. Robot, Legion, and WestworldBuster's Mal Heart is easily comparable to Malek's best known project. But while Mr. Robot fans will likely see Elliot in each incarnation of Jonah, Smith urges viewers to "take a breath and give this movie a clean chance."

During the Tribeca Film Festival, we sat down with Smith to learn more about making the "mindfuck" movie, discovering Rami Malek, and how Buster's Mal Heart pits man against both God and the cosmos.

VICE: What did you want to convey with this film?
Sarah Adina Smith: For me, this movie's about the possibility of free will in a universe governed by causality. We don't choose to be born, and we certainly don't get to choose the circumstances into which we are born. I wanted to ask the question, "If there's someone who's born with a 'bad heart,' whose fault is that at the end of the day?"

Here's a man who was born with a bad heart who was struggling against all odds to be good. He's trying to fight his fate and his nature. His heart is this bug in the mechanism of the cosmos, and the powers that be have to right that wrong. I wanted to make a movie about this heart that was so strong and loved so much that it could actually tear space and time a new asshole.

Although the film is about one person, we're essentially dealing with three distinct characters in three distinct situations. What was it like making these multiple facets of this one individual?
"Mountain man" Jonah—who we like to call Buster—is trying to get to the very top of the mountain to call God to task for the fucked up nature of this universe but is getting no answer. He's screaming into the void. Meanwhile fisherman Jonah—we only catch little glimpses of his story. We imagine that he's a guy who went south to avoid that conversation with God in some way, but he was swept out to sea and forced to have this conversation with the cosmos, and to confront himself in ways he didn't want to.


Then there's the younger Jonah, who takes us through the path to this moment of being split in two. He's someone holding both impulses at the same time. He's a man of paradox, and that's one of the reasons why we thought it was important for him to be bilingual. I think sometimes, when you speak two languages fluently, you're almost two different people—you use two different parts of your brain to communicate to the world. People who have mental illness are holding these paradoxes inside of themselves. The younger Jonah is a guy who's got that conflict going on in his heart every day.

How did you bring Rami into the picture?
I just had this feeling about him. The movie's about a bilingual Latino guy in Montana, and our list was confined to Latino actors, but because there's this diversity problem in Hollywood, there's really only half a dozen Latino actors that you can finance a movie with. We were having trouble getting any scripts read because it's really hard to get the attention of the small number of actors in that pool. We reached a point where if we didn't expand our circle of the names on our cast list, we might have not gotten to make this movie.

Rami was at the very top of that next list of people who we thought would be brilliant. I tend to be a little weird and superstitious, so I use tarot cards before making offers. I had this feeling about Rami, and then I pulled a tarot card and it really confirmed my suspicions that he was the right guy for the job. Now it's unfathomable to me that anyone else would ever play this part.

Did you cast him before Mr. Robot?
It was really crazy, because the moment we made our offer, I started seeing billboards everywhere for Mr. Robot season one. The show hadn't come out yet, but it looked really intriguing. I was worried he would be so flooded with offers he would never read our script. Perhaps because it was really unconventional it caught his eye.

Rami is earnestly interested in asking these types of [philosophical] questions. I think what drew him to Mr. Robot is that it's a story about a man against the machine of society, and I think this movie is asking similar questions on a slightly different plane. It's really about man against the machine of the cosmos. I think Rami was interested in continuing that conversation on a slightly different level with this movie. This is material that speaks to him authentically. He's a real artist in the sense that he chooses projects that ask the kinds of questions he wants to ask as a person here on earth, rather than choosing projects for strategic or shallow reasons.

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