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Remi Malek cements his status as an actor to watch in "Buster's Mal Heart," a disturbing indie thriller that plays out mostly in the main character's sleep-deprived head.
Malek, the star of USA Network's "Mr. Robot," plays Buster, a shaggy-haired hermit who breaks into and temporarily lives in unused vacation homes in the mountains of Montana. The local sheriff (Toby Huss) has been on his trail for a while and may finally have him cornered in a cave.
Writer-director Sarah Adina Smith's elliptical story flashes back to Buster's previous life. Once he was Jonah, a clerk working the graveyard shift in a Montana hotel, trying to make ends meet for his loving wife, Marty (Kate Lyn Sheil), and their 2-year-old daughter.
Buster dreams of buying a piece of land to get his family away from city life and out from under the roof of Marty's disapproving mother (Lin Shaye). But job pressure and sleep deprivation take a mental toll and leave him vulnerable to the tech-related conspiracy theories of a stranger (DJ Qualls) who shows up at the hotel, identifying himself only as "The Last Free Man" and warning about "The Inversion" that supposedly will destroy us all.
Smith toggles between Jonah's increasingly stressful past with Buster's nomadic present, causing us to question in the tradition of "Fight Club" or "12 Monkeys" how much is "real" and how much is going on in his head. The answers don't necessarily square with the available evidence, but the unraveling is often fascinating.
What makes it compelling is Malek's solid performance. His bug-eyed expressions serve well for Jonah's spiraling despair and Buster's tragic madness and lend an alien otherness that fits Smith's off-kilter atmosphere.
'Buster's Mal Heart'
Rami Malek gives an intriguing dual performance in this edgy thriller about a man on the edge of madness.
Where • Tower Theatre.
When • Opens Friday, May 12.
Rating • Not rated, but probably R for violent images and language.
Running time • 98 minutes.