Sarah Adina Smith is reluctant to explain the mysteries in her latest film, "Buster's Mal Heart," a puzzle-box thriller with metaphysical overtones that could sit comfortably next to indie cult movies like "Primer" and "Memento."
"I think it does a disservice to the audience if we say too much about our own feelings about it," she said in a phone interview. "I think the point is to leave room for their own interpretation and I don't want mine to get in the way of anyone else's."
"We very carefully laid out the breadcrumbs, where if someone wants to go deeper into the film, that's available so upon multiple viewings you may get certain clues you didn't get before," she said.
But answers are what you'll want from her feature, shot in the Kalispell and Whitefish area in late October and early November of 2015.
Producer Jonako Donley said "it's a film you have to have on for a while and think through."
It features Rami Malek, star of the TV series "Mr. Robot," in multiple roles who may or may not be the same person. In one thread, a hirsute mountain man nicknamed "Buster" by the local media breaks into the vacation homes of rich people to steal their food and use their facilities. In another, an unnamed figure is adrift at sea in a small boat with no food or water, howling at his maker. In the final layer, Malek portrays Jonah, a night-shift concierge struggling with the late hours and financial constraints. While alluding to a troubled past, he's also turned his life around and has a Christian wife and a young daughter. However, he appears to be reaching his breaking point working nights, Smith said, and frustrated by dreams of buying his own property and achieving a self-sustaining life for his family.
Malek delivers a characteristically quiet and intense performance that he's known for on the lauded "Mr. Robot." Smith said he's "brilliant at keeping all this stuff brewing beneath the surface when he approaches his craft." That particularly suits the somewhat mysterious Jonah, whose struggles are sympathetic but elusive in context of the film's many layers. "Even though it's somewhat simple what's going on with him on the surface, he's got a whole war brewing in his heart that I think really comes through," she said.
Smith said Malek is "all-in" with his commitment to his craft. Because of constraints on time and daylight, they'd often only have the opportunity for one or two takes of a given scene.
Malek was cast just as "Mr. Robot" came out and made him a star — they had only just submitted their offer when billboards of his face started appearing around L.A.
"We thought we had just missed the boat, luckily he still read the script and we got in in the nick of time and were able to convince him to come do this crazy indie film," Smith said.
Jonah's arc takes a dark turn when he meets a mysterious computer programmer who enters the hotel late at night. He only carries cash and refuses to divulge his name. The man, played by DJ Qualls (TV's "The Man in the High Castle," "Hustle & Flow") begins entrancing and/or hustling Jonah with free-will speeches that align with the hotel clerk's own views, informed by late-night TV cosmological theories about "The Inversion," a Rapture-like event that's approaching on the brink of Y2K hysteria.
The simmering psychological tension, which reflects Smith's love of David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick, builds as these storylines are intercut and build toward a Mobius strip-ending.
It's a lot to unpack, but critics have responded to its original structure and voice. It played at Tribeca Film Festival in New York earlier this year. An L.A. Times review complimented the "confident weirdness that 'Buster’s Mal Heart' boasts as it dissects a damaged soul for signs of what’s eternal and what’s triggered when a man breaks in two."
Smith, a Colorado native, originally set her script in her home state where she would have the benefit of family, friends and resources.
"I went there to scout and wasn't quite feeling the spirit of the movie, which is very much about a man retreating into solitude to confront his maker or confront the cosmos," she said. She had visited Montana several years before and "had this feeling that Montana is a place where people go to get lost."
There were better incentives to shoot in Alberta, Canada, but they "felt really strongly that this is an American story and we wanted to be true to that."
They found the right landscapes for those overtones in Kalispell and Whitefish.
The former Outlaw Inn, meanwhile, served as Jonah's workplace.
They brought along perhaps seven or eight cast members and used Montanans to fill out the rest of the roles. Lily Gladstone ("Certain Women") has a small part as a fellow hotel employee, and Missoula actor Chris Torma plays a detective.
Since the film is set in 1999, it's a period piece, and the look of some of the Montana locations were a better fit.
"I think you find more places in Montana that haven't been updated, and that's so important and amazing for filmmakers to have access to those kinds of locations. Especially for a film like ours where we can't build our own sets," she said.
Smith, who was 18 as New Year's Eve 1999 approached, was immersed in the cultural mood and its attendant conspiracy theories.
"I was very much the teenager, the world revolves around you. I felt very sure the world was going to end when the clock struck midnight in Colorado," she said.
"Buster" is Smith's second full-length feature after 2015's "The Midnight Swim."
She was initially inspired by news articles about real-life burglar-hermits like Buster.
"I just thought there was something really charming about that idea of a mountain man who's not very good at being a mountain man — who wants so desperately to be free but doesn't really even know what to do with that freedom and keeps coming indoors for shelter and food," she said. Around the same time, an El Salvadoran fisherman was found after 14 months lost at sea, leaving some to question how he survived and if his story was true.
"It occurred to me, what if this mountain man and this fisherman were the same person, and explore that notion of solitude and the cosmos from two extremes of the soul?" Smith said.
Viewed through the stories of the fisherman adrift and the hotel clerk's burdens, the film could be viewed as a retelling of the biblical story of Jonah and the whale, she said. However, instead of accepting God's will, her protagonist continues to question him.
Jonah's struggles with a rigged economic system share themes with Smith's follow-up film. It's too early for Smith to talk at length about her follow-up film, but she plans to shoot in 2018 in India.
"It's a parable about economic injustice, about the haves and have-nots and what happens when the walls between them can't hold up to the mounting pressure when resources are scarce," she said.
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