The stories we share with each other, no matter the genre, are about so much more than passing the time. Tales handed down through the ages give our lives context, shape our values, and make sense of the world. And most importantly, they help us confront our own mortality. Whether it’s a misanthropic Coen brothers’ film like The Ballad of Buster Scruggs or a popcorn flick like Avengers: Endgame, on some level, we approach each story, looking for answers. To Dust, by writer/director Shawn Snyder draws viewers in by tackling life’s biggest questions head-on.
After his wife’s death, a Hasidic cantor named Shmuel (Géza Röhrig) is haunted by visions of death, rot, and decay. Day and night, images of his wife’s withering body invade his thoughts. He tries to outrun these horrors through drink, desperate prayers, and escaping into nature where his wife’s memory still seems to linger. But nothing helps and things are getting worse. And one chilly morning he wakes up to find himself at his wife’s fresh grave.
Shmuel lacks the vocabulary to process what’s bothering him. When he turns to his religious elder, he’s greeted with flowery language that doesn’t speak to the root of his trauma. He then turns to a casket salesman, a blunt man who also lacks the jargon to give Shmuel the answers he craves. He then seeks out a biology professor who works at a local community college, named Albert (Matthew Broderick). Albert answers Shmuel’s questions, mostly. But the physiology of death and decay remains an abstraction. So, he drafts Albert into his crusade for answers. And Shmuel hopes that he’ll find peace of mind at the end of his long and trying road.
Röhrig puts in solid work as the single-minded Shmuel. Every phrase he speaks carries the weariness and desperation of a man worn down to the nub. He’s suffering a full-blown existential crisis and years of religious aphorisms aren’t anchoring him as he feels most adrift in his time of need. Religion is better at calming existential dread than contextualizing the nature of our fleeting mortality. In one great scene, Shmuel sits across from his rabbi and peppers him with questions. And the moment plays out like they’re having two separate conversations. In times of crisis, people double down on their faith or freak the f#<k out. And his religion’s lack of answers drives Shmuel toward option two.
Watching Broderick, I can’t help but think about the arc of his long career. As Ferris Bueller, he played one of the ’80s’ most iconic cool kids. Watching him as a child, I couldn’t fathom him as anything other than a smooth-talker and an alpha-dog. But Broderick’s mastery of his craft took him in another direction. And now, I only remember him playing hapless dorks. In To Dust, he’s always flustered, wishy-washy, and looking like he’s gone too long without a glass of milk. He shows just enough backbone to push back when situations become absurd. He’s always wound tight with pent-up frustration. And with Shmuel as the straight man, Albert delivers many of the film’s funniest lines.
Xavi Giménez’ cinematography tells half the movie’s story. To Dust’s desaturated colour palette and precise camera movements provide as many insights into To Dust, its characters, and their world as Jason Begue and Shawn Snyder’s script. At times, the chilling camera movement is spectre-like as it slowly pushes in on Shmuel’s stoic face. The contrast between cold, sterile, brightly lit spaces and dark shadowy rooms feel like looking through windows into two separate worlds. Giménez captures much of the action under dim lighting, with dull yellows and browns overrunning the frame. These shots convey Shmuel’s sadness and mental haze. It’s so affecting that you feel you are right alongside him on a trip through purgatory.
Shmuel turns to religion and science for the relief he needs, and neither do the trick. No religious teaching or scientific study offers definitive answers to life’s biggest questions. That’s not to say their tenets don’t help during times of crisis. But they give people a sense of agency over what’s out of their control and can’t be understood. There are no one-size-fits-all cures to help us make peace with mortality. It’s up to each individual to decide what gets them through the night.
But Albert and Shmuel’s unlikely friendship speaks to one possible remedy that helps mend our wounded spirits. Compassion – love, connection, and acceptance – experienced first-hand, or recounted through stories can lift us up when we’re at our lowest. Hopefully, our lives don’t play out like Shmuel’s, and these messages reach us when we’re most in need. It doesn’t matter if we discover them in a textbook, or a prayer, or a movie like To Dust.