Friday, May 16, 2014


What sets This Is Martin Bonner apart from so many other American indies that are in the same lane is that the director had the balls to take his time and keep things simple. And in keeping things simple, the film brings about many topics of discussion (redemption, faith, family, etc) and gives us interesting characters. There isn't a single moment where someone shouts or screams and there's no scenes of violence. What's crazy is that the story takes place in a fairly grimy/shady place ( Reno, Nevada) and there's no debauchery at all (minus one very quick moment).
As I watched This Is Martin Bonner I kept thinking to myself that whoever made this must have watched old Wim Wenders or Jim Jarmusch films (that's the only example I could think of. Please don’t watch this at my suggestion expecting to get the equivalent of Kings Of The Road or Stranger Than Paradise). This Is Martin Bonner also has some of the same polarizing shots as Buffalo '66 or 2002-2007 era Gus Van Sant. In doing a little research I came to discover that the man who directed it, Chad Hartigan, was the first ever winner on the cancelled IFC show; Ultimate Film Fanatic. Not only did I used to watch that show (and do pretty well as I played along) but I remember this guy! I think it's great that a genuine lover of cinema with a ton of movie knowledge went on to become a good filmmaker (according to IMDB he made another film prior to this, Luke & Brie Are On A First Date, which I have yet to see). I wonder if Chad Hartigan used his winnings from the IFC game show to fund his filmmaking career. This reminded me of a time when I was in college and I saw an episode of The Price Is Right where a filmmaker made it to the main stage and was in the position to win $10,000 and he lost it all in the end. He looked devastated. You could tell by the look on his face that he needed that money to make some kind of short film or something and he lost it all...

This Is Martin Bonner may not be a road movie like the other films (actually, calling Gerry a "road movie" is a bit of a stretch) but it still has the same simple/minimalist vibe as road stories like Kings Of The Road & Stranger Than Paradise. All of these stories have the same kind of ambiguity and open endedness too...
Kings Of The Road (1976)
Stranger Than Paradise (1984)
Gerry (2002)
This Is Martin Bonner (2013)

If you refer to my review of Nebraska (a film I like to think takes place in the same universe as Martin Bonner) you’ll read about my disappointment in how some filmmakers these days don't really seem to be cinephiles anymore. Chad Hartigan is definitely an exception. If you watch This Is Martin Bonner and are familiar with the cinema I compared it too earlier, you might think I'm crazy at first but if you watch it a few times you'll see where I'm coming from. Hartigan focuses on the sparse landscapes of the American west which might remind you of how Wenders shoots Germany in Kings Of The Road or Portugal in The Shape Of Things. The few moments of humor in the film are dry & deadpan and there's lots of quiet moments just like in Stranger Than Paradise or Permanent Vacation. Again, Hartigan's latest film may not be on the same level as the aforementioned works but in my opinion it still deserves the comparison.

Social work plays a big part in this film. I've never been a social worker but I've been around that field my whole life. My Dad has been a social worker in almost every capacity for almost his whole life. He's worked with drug addicts, he taught prisoners on rikers island and saw to it that people with physical & developmental disabilities got a fair shake at employment. Before teaching high school kids, my mother worked as a teacher at school for abused children. My girlfriend works in public health and two of my closest friends (who happen to be brothers) have worked with underprivileged youth in Chicago & Miami, respectively, for their continued education. I guess that's why some of the characters & events in This Is Martin Bonner seemed so familiar to me...
Again, this is a film set in Reno with some characters who are ex-cons & prostitutes yet Hartigan didn't craft the typical story that you'd expect with these kinds of cinematic prototypes.

This Is Martin Bonner is the story of a divorced 60-something year old father of two (...Martin Bonner) who used to work for a church (on the financial/business end) but had an unexplained crisis of faith and stopped believing in god.

I just woke up one morning and decided I didn't wanna go to church anymore – Martin Bonner

Martin's son & daughter, who we never actually see, are grown (he has a good relationship with his daughter who he calls regularly, but we never see him speak to his son even though Martin makes an effort to reach out to him). He lives alone in Reno working in some kind of a halfway house program for recently released prisoners. Martin eventually forms a bond with one of the new ex-cons in the program ("Travis") who was in prison for 12 years for vehicular homicide (he killed a guy while driving drunk). Like Martin, Travis is also having a crisis of faith and is trying to mend his relationship with his daughter while adjusting to life on the outside.

Richmond Arquette's performance as Travis is an interesting one. He plays him in a vulnerable, almost childlike way. I'm a little conflicted because he represents that "hey, we all make horrible mistakes in life but I'm really a good person"-character, but part of me doesn't wanna feel sympathy for him (which Hartigan clearly wants us too) because he's an idiot who killed a guy while drunk driving. There's just something about me where I don't have much sympathy for that. But then I question if that's fair given my sympathy for the Josh Hutton character in Hal Hartley's Unbelievable Truth who also killed someone while driving drunk.
Richmond, whose one of the lesser known Arquettes, is probably most known for his small roles in the films of David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club, Benjamin Button & Zodiac). This Is Martin Bonner is his first "major" starring role that I'm familiar with and he does a good job.
Paul Eenhoorn’s performance as the title character is a bit wooden & subdued but still effective (it's kind of required that his character be a little subdued & calm). Hartigan gives us just enough info to piece together the basics about Martin then leaves little hints for us to come to our own conclusions about other aspects of his life. Was the divorce between him & his wife ugly? Why don't we ever see Martin speak to his son? Why did he stop being a musician?
I know the crisis of faith thing is one of the most run in to the ground themes within indie & art house cinema but this felt different. There isn't a very strong religious presence weighing down on the story. We get a few minor supporting characters in the film who are religious but they aren't a huge part of the story in my opinion.

This is one of those films that could easily get overlooked (I mentioned it briefly in my end of the year wrap-up) but thanks to popular cinema podcasts like Filmspotting: SVU & The Cinephiliacs, This Is Martin Bonner is getting some deserved attention.

I definitely recommend watching this on a lazy Sunday afternoon...


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