One of the best films of the year plays tomorrow at a single theatre in Toronto for a single screening, and the best part is that it’s free, which means there’s little to no excuse to not see it. Writer and director Chad Hartigan’s warm and thoughtful American indie This Is Martin Bonner screens at the Revue at 9pm as part of the Refocus series, which is equally a perfect fit, a major coup for the series, and also in a backhanded way a damn shame. Like many entries in the series, this one deserves a full theatrical release and distribution in Canada. Hopefully high attendance at the screening will make someone stand up and take notice.
Martin Bonner (Paul Eenhoorn) has recently packed up his life in Maryland and transplanted himself to the chilly desert of Reno, Nevada with no support system in place, launching headlong into his first job in three years. A volunteer coordinator for a Christian themed program looking to place former inmates both into jobs and the church, Martin starts a friendship with Travis (Richmond Arquette), a recent entry into the program who just finished serving a long stint following a DUI. Both men are struggling to reconnect to the families they have left and adjust to their new, almost shared loneliness.
Hartigan has made a rare film about the nature of loneliness and absence without feeling monotonous or tiresome. These are weary people, but they’re believable and still fully worthy of love. Despite talk of religion and the characters’ crises of faith, it isn’t a standard redemption narrative being told. It’s not so much about redemption as it is about not being able to move forward following life’s sometimes crushing (and often self inflicted) setbacks.
There’s a real quiet elegance and a staggering believability to these characters and situations. These are real people with real and tangible concerns, and Hartigan never for a moment resorts to melodrama, but he also doesn’t create a stagnant mood piece. Gorgeously shot and effortlessly paced, details about the lives of Martin and Travis are meted out in small, but intimate detail. Neither man is an open book, but neither is a cipher for something else. There’s no wallowing in their isolation, and neither seems particularly hopeful (although Martin puts on a happy face quite a bit more often) or closer to understanding their own lives, but they’re nothing if not deeply contemplative characters.
As the titular figure, Australian actor Eenhoorn plays Martin as a man learning to find happiness where he can and on his own terms. His daughter might try to set him up for awkward speed dating sessions and he’s still learning to deal with the rejection he sometimes faces at his job, but he finds comfort in little things like acting as a soccer referee or trolling eBay and auction shops for antiques. He always puts a smile on, but there’s never a sense that Martin has forgotten all the things that have went wrong in his life. He’s perfectly friendly and it’s easy to wish him success, but his setbacks are easy to see and cuttingly relatable.
The real stand-out here, however, is Arquette, who’s mostly known for his genre work and showing up in bit parts in David Fincher films. It’s a performance of staggering nuance that will leave an indelible impression on the viewer long after the film ends. His Travis is a man of low tones who has found his entire life blunted by his own actions. While Martin is a kindred spirit in many respects, there’s no way for him to relate to Travis’ problems in every possible way. Travis is a sad man who looks constantly on the verge of tears, and even his most confident moments find him punctuating his sentences almost always with question marks to underline just how uncertain he’s become of everything. A meeting with his estranged daughter (an also excellent Sam Buchanan) over lunch that ends up causing a rift between Travis and Martin is one of the best scenes in any film this year thanks to Arquette’s work. It’s a performance that demands recognition this year.
Together, Eenhoorn, Arquette, and Hartigan have made a special film full of feelings that most filmmakers can only elicit from audiences through disingenuous or heavy handed means. It’s hard work to make on-screen emotions translate to the audience in a low key drama about human interaction and stay true to a realistic bent, but This is Martin Bonner has heart and charm in spades. This might be your only chance to catch it, and while I sincerely hope it isn’t, you should probably carve out some time in your schedule this week to check it out.