Malek plays Jonah, who works a job as a concierge at a cheap-looking chain motel, which would be adequate enough if he didn't have to work the night shift, which keeps him away from his wife Marty (Kate Lyn Sheil) and daughter Roxy (Sukha Belle Potter). Jonah dreams of buying a patch of land, reducing his work hours to part-time or quitting completely, and living with his wife and daughter off the land. However, his wife, saddled with additional responsibilities while Jonah sleeps or works, is willing to settle for the same things everyone else has if it gets them their own apartment, away from her suspicious, subtly racist mother Pauline (Lin Shaye). Meanwhile, Jonah strikes up a tenuous friendship with a mysterious drifter (DJ Qualls), who rants about Y2K and "the inversion" until Jonah lets him check in despite not having a credit card.
Although Jonah and his struggles occupy the core of the film, that story is intercut with another plotline in which Jonah is known as "Buster", a bearded homeless nut who breaks into rich people's vacation homes and calls into radio programs to deliver rants identical to those of his drifter pal. There's also an even more surreal third timeline, where Jonah is alone on a small boat in the middle of a vast ocean with no other ships or landmarks in site. Smith, who also edited the film, smoothly segues between the three threads, keeping us rooted in the emotional world of the first segment as she poses questions about the second, with the third lingering on the fringes. As with Midnight Swim, Smith's greatest skill is capturing an atmosphere. On the first level, there's the disconcerting regressiveness of the bland, eerily quiet hotel Jonah works in, with its 1995-era decor and clothing (this section of the film actually seems to be set in 1995, but the look sets a mood for the viewer). The fugue is broken by the brightness of the moments he shares with his wife and daughter, even when they stay in the hotel. There is a listless, hollow energy to Jonah's life as "Buster", and the Jonah in the boat seems angry and desperate. The film has a faint dreamlike quality that evokes everything from John Carpenter's They Live (via a strange, rant-heavy public access show that Jonah sometimes falls asleep to) to the Coen Brothers' Barton Fink.
Although Adina weaves these stories together with skill from an editing perspective, divining the meaning behind them is harder to grasp. Qualls' drifter rants about the danger of structured systems, how humanity has boxed itself in. That would appear to be true of Jonah, who's struggling to escape the system into his farmland fantasy, and at least some of Qualls' rants about "The Inversion" appear to be true, but his character is also painted as a goof based on his belief in Y2K, not to mention a cocaine habit and willingness to participate in a little scam Jonah cooks up when his boss won't let him off the night shift. Jonah's wife is a recovering addict, and she found support through religion. The film seems to invoke a certain spirituality, especially as the story goes on, but belief in that spirituality would then contradict the drifter's fear of structured systems. There is also a late-breaking notion of something even more unusual, more of a science fiction concept rather than a spiritual one, but while the resolution offers a certain emotional satisfaction, it's unclear what Smith's perception of that outcome really is.
The film is bolstered by Malek, whose baggy but piercing eyes and slightly gaunt appearance make him visually perfect for the role, and whose quiet performance is frequently effective. A character like Jonah could easily come off as unlikable, especially during the Buster story, but there's a soft-spoken warmth to him at all times. He and Sheil have a potent chemistry, both as lovers and parents, and a scene in a pool really allows Smith to get some emotional hooks in. Even Qualls, the oddball early-2000s comedy star, is fascinating in the film, a perfect fit for a strange but charismatic outsider.
The Video and Audio
An original theatrical trailer and original theatrical teaser trailer for Buster's Mal Heart are also included.