Somewhere far beyond the hoary parables of most faith-based films and the brutal body-blows of prison flicks soars This Is Martin Bonner, an understated drama with small words and big ideas. The second feature from writer-director Chad Hartigan (after Luke and Brie Are On A First Date and the documentary All The Stage Is A World) starts with a traditional redemption story—a church worker helps an ex-convict reorient himself—and slows it down, letting his characters breathe deeply as they contemplate a purpose to their isolation. The result is meditative yet stirring, absorbing in its depiction of the furtive messiness that comes with trying to turn a life around.
Martin (Paul Eenhoorn), an Australian theologian climbing out of a crisis of faith, has recently moved to Reno to work for a church program that assimilates ex-convicts into society. He’s utterly alone in his advancing age, with grown kids across the country and an ex-wife he never speaks of, and he remains reluctantly tethered to a career in Christianity like another bad marriage. His tiny apartment seems to echo with emptiness, and at night, he dances alone to recordings of his old rock band from the 1960s.
When he meets Travis, a recently released prisoner in the program, an easy bond develops. Like Martin, Travis (Richmond Arquette, of the Arquette acting dynasty) is quiet and introspective, wary of what the world has been trying to teach him. “I’ve never been to Reno, but technically, I’ve lived here for 12 years,” he tells Martin when they first meet. Travis’ crime is best left discovered, but it lends an Old Testament irony to the seemingly menial job he’s able to find on the outside.
Hartigan, who financed the film with the help of two Kickstarter campaigns and won a deserved Sundance audience award for his trouble, places his characters in the distant aftermath of the worst decisions they’ll ever make. This lends the micro-budget film an epic melancholy, a sense that these people have doomed themselves to be suspended in place and time. Hartigan’s vision of Reno is a kind of purgatory, with soccer fields and empty coffee shops against a dry desert sky. It’s a land where no one is from and no one wants to be from.
Because the dialogue in the film is minimal and primarily conversational, much of the movie’s impact depends on the stewardship of its lead performers. As Martin, Eenhoorn communicates in piercing expressions and a demeanor that inches between playful and ruminative. Though his character is written to be a bit too saintly, he does a wonderful job of squaring that character’s desire to help the world with his own personal loss of a higher calling. Arquette, with slumped shoulders and a doughy physique, shuffles through his newfound existence with unease, and seems always on the verge of turning around and marching back to the prison. His encounter with his daughter (Sam Buchanan) late in the film is a scene of tender and delicate, yet decidedly un-showy, acting.
This Is Martin Bonner is a story of faith and redemption, but Hartigan casts aside the conventional wisdom that there must be a causal link between the two. Martin’s standing as a scholar of Christianity who no longer believes in the cause makes him more qualified to help Travis than the church-appointed mentor, because both men need human connections more than they need a spiritual one. Hartigan isn’t preaching for either side of the religion divide. Like any good student, he’s simply asking the questions and letting the chips fall where they may. The film ends abruptly, before all those chips can fall, but that works in its favor, too. By not spelling out a tidy ending, it keeps the faith.