THIS IS MARTIN BONNER C+
USA (83 mi) 2013 d: Chad Hartigan Official site
Like David Gordon Green, this director graduated from the North Carolina School of the Arts, but rather than be influenced by the sublime visual poetry of Terrence Malick, Chad Hartigan evolved from the school of mumblecore, reflected in his first feature film LUKE AND BRIE ARE ON A FIRST DATE (2008), which was shot in 5 days and made for just under $4,000 dollars. While it took 5 years before his next film, costing 10 times as much to make, still an extremely low budget effort, winner of the Audience Choice in the limited budget Best of NEXT category at Sundance, this is a stylistic departure for the director, crafting a quietly unassuming character sketch following the lonely lives of two individuals whose lives intersect. While we don’t realize it initially, both are lost souls whose lives are defined by a quiet desperation, though each approach their situation in life through differing paths. Martin Bonner (Paul Eenhoorn) is something of a quietly relaxed Australian lookalike of Ian Holm, a father of two grown children, sporting a wrinkled brow with grayish hair turning nearly white, whose kindly accessible manner reflects the years he spent as a business manager for a Catholic church, a theology student who displayed a devotion to his faith throughout his career until he got fired after his divorce—something about violating the church’s position. When we catch up to him he’s interviewing an angry black prisoner (Demetrius Grosse) for a faith-based non-for-profit organization in Reno, Nevada about a transition back into the community where they help prisoners adjust to the outside world. While the interchange is extremely loud and confrontational by the prisoner, who only seems interested in getting his sentence reduced, Martin’s calm and matter-of-fact response makes no promises, but suggests they can be a positive and helpful bridge back to the outside. While he’s new on the job, he seems to believe it, but the prisoner is cautiously pessimistic and openly defiant, which sets the tone for the film, which is about starting over after a lengthy period of disillusionment and pain, where it’s time to restore some degree of balance and harmony in their lives.
In another encounter, Martin is seen picking up another prisoner who is just being released, Travis (Richmond Arquette), who is actually assigned to one of the other staff members, but Martin drives him into town and offers him breakfast before dropping him off at a non-descript motel. The film then splits the screen time between these two men, where Travis literally has no one but the four blank walls of his motel, where his freedom only accentuates a feeling of abandonment, as if society has discarded this individual that it has no use for. A clever device repeated throughout the film are brief spurts of wordless imagery, one of the few explorations of the interior realm, as Travis steps outside to explore his surroundings, set to hauntingly beautiful music of Keegan DeWitt, where the music feels like an echo effect to the aching loneliness he feels. Martin routinely calls his two grown children, where his daughter recently had a baby, making him a grandfather, and is happy to hear from him, while his son works as an artist and never returns his calls. This practice defines his non-existent family life, however, as it is surviving on the skeletal remains. Travis is seen listening to the church sermon before joining in an overly polite Sunday dinner with his program sponsor Steve (Robert Longstreet) and his wife, both devout believers, where Travis is seen on his best behavior. The banalities of the film’s dialogue (written by the director) becomes literally suffocating, as many would simply bolt before having to endure such insipid conversation. This growing tedium actually defines the film, as it feels expressionless and downright boring. And while it’s meant to stand for the enveloping emptiness that haunts these men’s lives, it does nothing to sustain the audience’s interest, which has to endure this unalluring monotony as well.
But Travis eventually calls Martin, as he feels more comfortable talking around him, as his life is not so consumed by religion, where he seems more like a regular guy. While Martin has a job, Travis has literally nothing, as society has quite literally cast out any sense of obligation to prisoners, even after they’re released, where he’s little more than a forgotten statistic, a non-existing entity. Other than these religious outreach programs, there are few organizations that recognize his existence, exemplified by a trip to the local DMV where he hears the spiel about what he has to do in order to regain his driving privileges, where learning how to be an airplane pilot might be an easier route. At least Martin befriends the guy over a cup of coffee, where Martin’s own shortcomings come into play. Throughout the film there are continual attempts to find a way out of this deafening silence imposed by their societal isolation, but all they really hear is the sound of their own voices reminding them of how little progress they’ve made. When Travis tries to reunite with his grown daughter Diana (Sam Buchanon), who he hasn’t seen in over a dozen years, she agrees to visit from Arizona by Greyhound bus and spend an afternoon, so he turns to Martin for help, as he has no confidence whatsoever in his own social skills which have eroded considerably while wasting away behind bars. And true to form, when they meet, Travis is ridiculously inept in re-establishing contact, where there remain unresolved issues over what sent him to jail in the first place, as he was convicted of drunken vehicular manslaughter, inadvertently killing someone in an auto accident, an act that continues to plague both Diana and Travis with a great deal of shame. This is a continuing theme hovering over both men, as neither are proud of themselves, haunted by their past failures, where they’re attempting to not let that define their lives, but guilt is a strong emotion, and despite their best attempts, it continues to latch onto them with an unbreakable grip, where really all they can do is lead lives that resemble the type of people they prefer to be, even if it feels like they’re only pretending. Ultimately, this is a dramatically low key and nearly inert film about how difficult it is attempting to learn how to relive your life after an extended dormant period where you didn’t trust or believe in yourself, where the banalities of ordinary existence are all that’s left for you to cling to for support.