Rami Malek stars as an unkempt vagrant with a past in this oddly named film, which is about the making of a madman. It also aspires, with less success, to philosophically query the void at the center of modern life.

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In the oddly named “Buster’s Mal Heart,” an unkempt vagrant (Rami Malek) wanders the hills of Montana, squatting in empty vacation homes and sometimes defecating in the cookware. Long known to the authorities as Buster, he calls in to radio shows to rant about a coming apocalypse.

Once, in another life, Buster was a loving husband and father called Jonah and a sleep-deprived night clerk at a characterless hotel. Between the two identities lies a dreadful, transformative event. As the movie toggles from one to the other, its writer and director, Sarah Adina Smith, conjures a storyboard of surreal puzzle pieces that snap together, then suddenly split apart. So when a mysterious stranger (DJ Qualls) seems to offer Jonah freedom from his puritanical in-laws and soul-deadening job, we somehow know that escape is not on the table.

Filmed with an alienating elegance by Shaheen Seth, “Buster’s Mal Heart” is about the making of a madman. It also aspires, with less success, to philosophically query the void at the center of modern life and Christianity’s failure to fill it. Religious homilies and paranoid exhortations spill from television sets where cartoons of men trapped in endlessly whirring machines dance dishearteningly. And if the story is too tricky to realize its themes or welcome the impatient, it also contains enough empathy to humanize a character who is part man, part spiritual symbol.

Movie Review

‘Buster’s Mal Heart,’ with Rami Malek, DJ Qualls, Kate Lyn Sheil. Written and directed by Sarah Adina Smith. 96 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences. Several theaters.

The New York Times does not provide star ratings with reviews.

That character is only a step away from Malek’s delusional-hacker role on the television series “Mr. Robot,” his gigantic eyes and repressed manner the movie’s greatest assets. On some level, Smith seems to be saying, we are all Buster; we might just be better than him at holding things together.