This Is Martin Bonner: Sundance Review

Richmond Arquette and Paul Eenhoorn
Rigorously subdued in performance and tone, this low-key character portrait is distinguished by its empathetic honesty.

Premiering in Sundance's Next section devoted to innovative storytelling, Chad Hartigan's drama examines the unexpected junction that connects two lonely lives.

PARK CITY – Writer-director Chad Hartigan’s This Is Martin Bonner is a contemplative twin character study that charts the parallel attempts of two very different men to restart their lives after reaching turning points. Acted with smart restraint and shot with corresponding composure, this is a somber, slow-moving drama built out of small but acutely observed moments of naturalistic human behavior. More influenced by European minimalism than any American independent aesthetic, it’s a quiet film but an absorbing one.

That quietness is Hartigan’s controlled keynote, with moments of volatility confined largely to the opening scene. A kindly Australian man in his late 50s, recently relocated from Maryland to Reno, Martin Bonner (Paul Eenhoorn) is being trained in a Christian mentoring program to help prisoners transition to life outside after their release. During his first interview, a potential recruit (Demetrius Grosse) balks at the labor, study and religious requirements of the program for what he sees as too little in return. But this prickly exchange reveals less about Martin’s new job than about his unwavering sense of calm.

In scene fragments or snatches of conversation that dispense seamlessly and economically with exposition, we learn that Martin is close to his married daughter back east but seldom hears from his artist son despite leaving regular voicemails. He is a volunteer referee for a local soccer team as well as an amateur antiques dealer, buying items at markets and auctions to resell on eBay. He appears reconciled to the solitude of single life but agrees at his daughter’s urging to participate in an online dating program, seeming more wryly amused by it than open to genuine romantic possibility.

Martin meets Travis Holloway (Richmond Arquette) soon after the latter’s release from prison. Travis settles into a cheap motel on a noisy stretch of highway and gets a job as a parking-station attendant. He has perfunctory sex with a $50 hooker but remains an introspective man of few words. That makes him a mismatch with his upbeat, glory-to-God assigned mentor Steve (Robert Longstreet). Instead, Travis reaches out to Martin for support, perhaps recognizing a fellow traveler also in a transitional phase.

The cautious friendship between these two soft-spoken men prompts no major epiphanies. There’s just the unforced suggestion of a reciprocal opening up as Martin reveals the crisis of faith that brought him to Reno and Travis shares the circumstances that led to his 12-year sentence. The reunion between Travis and his daughter Diana (Sam Buchanan) over an awkward lunch is handled with the raw delicacy of tentative first steps, not of promised reconciliation. But for all its solemnity and disciplined avoidance of sentimentality, the film ends on a hopeful note, suggesting that both men will continue to re-engage with life.

Sean McElwee shoots the featureless, flat settings and drab interiors with very little movement, often lingering on static images that enhance the film’s focused intensity. The actors echo that less-is-more approach in their carefully contained performances, their eyes often serving as their primary means of communication. Arquette is affecting as he nervously shuffles in his seat beside Diana, struggling to generate conversation. And Eenhoorn conveys a whole complicated history without actually saying a lot, hinting that Martin’s patience and inner fortitude may have been hard won.

In one short scene, Martin dances alone in his apartment and plays air guitar to an old tape recording of a band he fronted in his youth. The song, “Genevieve,” is an appealingly scrappy garage-rock nugget recorded by Kopyrite, a group Eenhoorn sang with during the late ‘60s in Perth. It’s a nice understated interlude and indicative of the personal stake that gives this modest film its persuasive feel of lived-in authenticity. And at Sundance, where overdosing on youthful ennui or agitation can be a hazard, it’s refreshing to see a story told from a thoughtful middle-aged perspective.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Next)

Production companies: 600 West Productions, Stay Glorious

Cast: Paul Eenhoorn, Richmond Arquette, Sam Buchanan, Robert Longstreet, Demetrius Grosse

Director-screenwriter: Chad Hartigan

Producer: Cherie Saulter

Executive producer: Nick Cucinella

Director of photography: Sean McElwee

Production & costume designer: Margaret Kaiser

Music: Keegan DeWitt

Editor: Julio C. Perez IV

Sales: ICM Partners, Traction Media

No rating, 83 minutes