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Get Lost in Sarah Adina Smith’s Rural Science-Fiction Puzzle, Buster’s Mal Heart

Rami Malek as one of Buster's Mal Heart's rich panoply of drifters.EXPAND
Rami Malek as one of Buster's Mal Heart's rich panoply of drifters.
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In Montana, where writer-director Sarah Adina Smith filmed her small-town sci-fi flick, Buster’s Mal Heart, the winter-inversion clouds hang heavy in valleys, trapping the sunlight that bounces off the snow. The effect is a perpetual, sullen twilight. Smith embraces that between-light-and-dark aspect of Big Sky Country to tell the story of Jonas (Rami Malek), a Hispanic night-shift “concierge” at a low-rent hotel in a resort town, who falls down a rabbit-hole of Y2K conspiracy theories as he begins to suspect that the unfulfilling life he’s been dutifully trudging through may be a “bug in the system.” Maybe he was meant to be someone and somewhere else.

Jonas is the quintessential third-shift hotel clerk, wandering through empty halls, fishing pizza slices from the pool and lazily tossing a squash ball at a wall — anything to kill time. One night, a drifter (DJ Qualls) interrupts the endless religious programs parading on the TV behind the check-in desk. The drifter has cash and no ID; he’s an under-the-radar outlaw who babbles endlessly — and sometimes, to Jonas’ ears, convincingly — about a different kind of “inversion,” one that opens up a tunnel running through the Earth’s core.

Meanwhile, there are two other Jonases roaming around: one trapped adrift on a dinghy, the other a marauding drifter who survives the bleak winter by breaking into vacant vacation homes. This film is not for casual watching, with Twitter open on your phone. It’s science fiction that’s complex, thoughtful and funny, like 12 Monkeys or Primer run through a Fargo filter.

Most of the humor comes from drifter Jonas, whose idiosyncratic behavior — meticulously cleaning the houses but leaving a pot of shit on the tables, or carrying on lengthy conversations with phone-sex operators that climax with his warning that it’s the inversion, not he, who “is coming” — draws big, awkward laughs. But funny isn’t the director’s primary aim; through a mind-bending timeline, Smith deftly explores the boxed-in lives of a rural service class, raised on a steady diet of TV prophets and public-access kooks and dwelling in one of the few American locales where people could just disappear if they wanted to.

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