Published Jan 20, 2013Coming from the school of mumblecore, Chad Hartigan's sophomore effort, This is Martin Bonner, marks a sharp stylistic departure, having a defined and rigid formality suggesting planned deliberateness rather than the organic, almost arbitrary, progression of his earlier, extremely low budget work. It's a film about starting over and about re-establishing a place in the world after being out of it for a long time.
The titular Martin Bonner (Paul Eenhoorn) works with a church program in Reno, Nevada, re-acclimating parolees into society. Similarly adapting to the challenges of starting anew, having left his bureaucratic church job years before, Martin is more understanding of, and more empathic to, the feelings of displacement and isolation felt by men thrust into a changed world with the added baggage of self-loathing.
When not selling discount auction items on eBay or placating his geographically distant daughter by partaking in a speed dating service, he acts as a friend and confidante for Travis (Richmond Arquette), a recently paroled man with good intentions but few options. Their growing friendship and the subtle pains they cope with while trying to make it in a world surrounded by people with a seemingly certain life trajectory is ultimately what connects them and mirrors the experience of two people on polar opposites of the social spectrum
Hartigan's approach to the material isn't to force these parallels down our throat, or make his intentions obvious by making the rumbling feelings of alienation melodramatic. Instead, he captures routine conversations between Travis and the DMV, discussing the process of obtaining a license after going to jail for vehicular manslaughter, and Martin's quiet evenings alone eating dinner or listening to music.
The subtle "God squad" subtext is also deadened to potential social critique, existing as sort of a patronizing and manipulative mode of forcing Christianity onto those vulnerable and in need of community, yet not acting as a villain. Though Travis has a hard time connecting with the more rigidly Christian members, the actual church service does help him establish a support system with Martin Bonner, in addition to providing him tools to be a functioning part of society.
This is Martin Bonner is the sort of quiet and carefully realized character piece that is largely ignored in a modern cinematic context. But despite the limited action and avoidance of big emotional set pieces, there's a somber tone and acute observation of peripheral social behaviour that speaks to the importance of acknowledging and helping your fellow man, no matter how small your extension of kindness may seem. (600 West)