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EDINBURGH - This year's trip to the Edinburgh Film Festival has been a brief, last-minute one. After three days of attempting to distil the highlights of artistic director Chris Fujiwara's defiantly independent-minded programming -- ranging from "The Conjuring" to "Leviathan" --, I'm heading home this evening, my festival experience over before it's even begun. (Tomorrow: off to Karlovy Vary.) Still, I'll be sharing the standouts with you in a couple of paired review pieces. First up: "This Is Martin Bonner," which begins its staggered release tomorrow, and "Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction" -- which, it was announced yesterday, will be released in Los Angeles on September 13.
First, let's get the weird bit out of the way: yes, it feels a bit strange to be reviewing a film from a former member of the In Contention family. But it's a strangeness born of familiarity and unfamiliarity at once. I had never met Chad Hartigan, our erstwhile box-office analyst, when I first saw his sophomore feature "This Is Martin Bonner" (B+) at Sundance in January; after viewing this unassumingly personal dual character study, particularly on a second go-round in Edinburgh, I felt I knew him a bit better. That's entirely the film's achievement, and I've been wanting to discuss it for some time. After all, if I didn't sincerely think "This Is Martin Bonner" was remarkable, it'd be easy enough to duck out of discussing it on grounds of principle.
In any event, longtime readers who remember Hartigan for his casually caustic box office columns may or may not be surprised by his film's calm generosity of spirit; "decency" isn't much of a buzzword in the current, irony-fuelled indie realm, but "Martin Bonner" posses a pure, palpable strain of it from first cleanly composed frame to last. The rare contemporary film about Christian behavior that doesn't go out of its way to announce its secularity, it's equally unpatronizing in its sharp articulation of loneliness in middle age and beyond.
"This Is Martin Bonner" is, it should be said, a somewhat misleading title for what turns out to be a democratically balanced two-man portrait -- and then, the eponymous Bonner, directly inspired by Hartigan's own father, never entirely reveals who he is. A sixty-ish divorcee resettling and rebuilding his life in, of all places, Reno -- a city perhaps better known for tearing lives down -- Bonner (played by an extraordinary discovery in Paul Eenhoorn) is a warm, open presence in his dealings with others, but we never wholly learn who "this" is. Working for a Christian charity that guides newly-released ex-cons toward the straight and narrow, he keeps his pain close to his chest so as to handle that of others: we never learn the reason behind his divorce, nor his evidently non-hostile estrangement from his grown son. (He has a happier relationship with his daughter, whose breezy chats over the phone nonetheless betray her concern over her dad's late life switch.)
An unfazed outsider -- with an Australian accent -- who wears his faith with modest conviction rather than evangelical zeal, he proves the ideal mentor for Travis (Richmond Arquette), a sad-sack type just out of prison after serving time for manslaughter, and looking to reconnect with his daughter. Martin appears to have done less than Travis to earn his child's distance, but this mutual lack -- coupled with their quiet yearning for company -- suggests the men aren't worlds apart, despite appearances to the contrary. Stopping short of any contrived moral conclusions, the film leaves us to ponder what intangible spiritual contentment distinguishes one man from the other -- what it is, if not personal actions and circumstances, that separates a "good" life from a "wasted" one.
This is regrettably rare, unfashionable thematic territory for modern film drama: a study in human goodness, of both the innate and hard-earned varieties, and the everyday challenges of being alone. Hartigan gets the performances he needs to animate, but not overwhelm, material this tonally refined and morally patient. As played with unwavering delicacy and twinkling good humor by Eenhoorn, Martin is both what we'd like our dads to be, and what we fear they may become. The actor teases out the dignified sadness masked by the character's unapologetically dorky zen demeanor, and the performance works in effective contrast to the touching dolefulness of Arquette, playing a man who hasn't yet mastered that concealment.
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