By Brian D’Ambrosio
Jonah is a bilingual desk clerk working an emotionally wearisome hotel job in Montana. Buster is a puzzling mountain man who breaks into people’s vacation homes for food and shelter and occasionally defecates in their kitchen pots.
How the two men are connected and the relationship between them is the crux of “Buster’s Mal Heart,”a well-crafted mystery-thriller in which the title character is haunted by visions of a past life while being pursued by the authorities. The movie was shot in and around Kalispell in October and November 2015.
“The movie was definitely made for and influenced by Montana,” said Sarah Adina Smith, who directed, wrote and edited the film. “We couldn’t feel the spirit of the movie when we first scouted in Colorado. This might be a stereotype, but beforehand when I’d thought of Montana, I thought of it as this beautiful place where weirdos and wackos go to get in touch with their spiritual maker, and to go to have that conversation with themselves. In that regard, Montana fit the natural spirit of the script.”
There was another reason they chose Montana over Colorado, according to Travis Stevens, a co-producer.
“We were looking for more snow in the production infrastructure,” he said. “We were looking for caves to film as well. When we started the shoot, the snow just wasn’t there. When we reached the part of the schedule that needed snow, it magically started to fall.”
The Montana outdoors buttress and even stabilize the film, from the opening shots under the moonlight of muzzle and rifle shots to the aerial, exterior and interior views of lakes, cabins and homes, concluding with the epilogue standoff in the soaked, snowy cave.
But the indoors are important, too. It’s the FairBridge Inn & Suites, formerly the Outlaw Inn, in Kalispell, that allowed the filmmakers to create a mood eerily reminiscent of “The Shining.”
Jonah is played by Emmy winner Rami Malek, known for the USA Network series “Mr. Robot.” In “Buster’s Mal Heart,” which also includes Montana actress Lily Gladstone, Jonah spends the overnight shift folding up and stacking tables, skimming soggy pizza slices out of the pool, scrubbing the restaurant dishware, and, in his down time, discontentedly whizzing a ball against the racquetball court wall.
His professional life, in his words, has failed to gain suitable “traction.” Elements of him are dormant, waiting for resurrection. Where the newly married father once saw his life as a riot of possibilities, his latest realizations are startlingly off-putting.
The second of the film’s three timelines depicts Buster as a mountain man, circa 1999, with the majority of that footage filmed in and around mountain resort properties and sizeable idyllic “cabins” in the Kalispell area.
Buster is paranoid, obsessed with ups and downs and cycles, and he observes harbingers of doom everywhere, including cloud formations. He is reacting to an untold traumatic experience, withdrawing from a world he sees as exploitative, monolithic, overly reliant on systems, and irrelevant to earlier forms of man.
He saunters through pristine vacation homes in his grimy long johns and phones in to radio stations to cuss and utter rambling monologues; for self-edification he listens to horoscope hotlines and sexually explicit live chats.
The shots of Montana wilderness are concerned with deep space and aerial dimensions and stark cold realism, too, including scenes of Buster camping near a small lake or, later, trekking through snowy gray surroundings.
“It’s there in the woods (of Montana) that he realizes he wasn’t programmed to deny his true nature,” Stevens said. “It’s there that he can no longer deny what has caused a split in him. On-location, sometimes you felt like you were on the last frontier, and the expansiveness of the state, to a visitor from Los Angeles—it was refreshing.”
“Everyone longs for a connection with nature,” said co-producer Jonako Donley. “Everyone needs that rejuvenation and balance. Can one find that balance? Do you have to choose one or the other? Do you just choose a life and stick with it? Leaving all of that behind is something that most people don’t have the courage to do.”
“Buster’s Mal Heart” is a film that’s not easy to understand—and that’s good. Rich in fantasy and suggestive moods, it has no pretensions of definite meaning. It ruthlessly portrays man’s stifled function in contemporary society. There is another potent subplot about the purpose of much-needed, yet almost invisible, service workers languishing on the edge of financial and emotional bankruptcy.
“There were families who worked inside of the hotel, who worked thankless service jobs for little pay,” Smith said. “It helped us be true to a real struggle in America: there no better jobs to be had, for some. There is a pride and respect for service jobs in Japan, but here there is a disrespect for them.
“Some of the people in service jobs hate themselves, and they hate their work. So many American jobs are now service jobs and there is something fundamentally unsatisfying about low-wage service jobs and naturally degrading because of the power structure. This affects his (Jonah’s) psyche and his desire to be free. I think that the audience too will feel like they are busting out of their cage.”
Ultimately, the art of life—similar to the art of filmmaking—is about continuously standing amazed before its freshness and vigor.
“I think we all have this fantasy of running off into nature,” Donley said. “Personally, I’ve lived my entire life in cities and the lure to get away from it all is tempting. But could I ever actually do that? We are all torn between the lives we live, the one that is essential and necessary, but there is another part of us that longs for something that is impossible and something that is tempting at the same time. How do you find a balance between those two worlds?”
Donley said the old Outlaw Inn, meanwhile, is itself “really a character in the film. You have a guy who longs to be in nature and he is trapped inside day after day and it becomes very oppressive. The old Outlaw Inn seemed like a hotel that was once the hot spot in town and then it sort of fell to the wayside. Its fallen glory, ballrooms, and the fact that it felt past its prime a little bit—that all worked for us.
“It didn’t feel too clean or too modern, and it’s where we lived the entire time. In a small way, we, as a crew, were stuck in his (Jonah’s) oppressive life over and over again.”
This was not the old inn’s first brush with Hollywood. When Charles B. Pierce produced “Winterhawk” on an eight- to 10-week schedule in 1975, the Outlaw Inn was headquarters the entire time. That movie was released in 1975. The cast and crew of “Damnation Alley” (1977), an adaptation of Roger Zelazny’s novel about two ex-military operatives rolling across a post-apocalyptic landscape, lodged there as well.
But most famously, it was connected with Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate” (1980), described by one critic as an “unqualified disaster,” and long a synonym for Hollywood folly and overspending. (The budget bloated from an initially proposed $7.5 million to a total of about $44 million.)
Cimino demanded to be provided with the largest executive room in the hotel. Still unsatisfied with the amount of space, he then paid to have a wall cut open to connect a pair of adjoining rooms. Actor Kris Kristofferson would jam with his band in the hotel’s lounge when he wasn’t rehearsing scenes. Kristofferson and co-star Isabelle Huppert used a second-floor banquet room to practice dancing on roller skates.
In “Buster’s Mal Heart,” the hotel was redone to emphasize the movie’s mid-1990s setting. It’s hard to overstate the hotel’s visual effectiveness and importance to the film.
“We needed that drab, anywhere, business hotel look,” Smith said. “It was difficult and we probably scouted 200 hotels. Originally, we were looking at Colorado, but it felt like Montana was a better spiritual fit. Even then, we checked well over a 100 hotels in Montana. We liked the FairBridge Inn & Suites. It was aesthetically right.”
Filmmakers coming back to Montana
Adina Smith and Donley are returning to Montana this weekend for screenings of the film and for scouting locations to shoot future projects.
Since its debut, “Buster’s Mal Heart” has enjoyed national press and screenings at major events such as the Toronto International Film Festival, AFI Fest and the Tribeca Film Festival.
“Film projects have a positive economic impact on the communities in which they’re shot and bring significant attention to Montana both as a film location and a travel destination,” said Montana Film Commissioner Allison Whitmer. “This project has the bonus of Emmy star power behind it and is already generating quite a buzz.”