There’s a school of writing that holds that even the most ordinary lives, deeply and thoughtfully observed, can be rendered into art. Another theory suggests that some movies so defy convention as to be graded on the curve as far as things like dialogue and incident and actual drama are concerned.
Both theories get a serious workout in “This is Martin Bonner,” a seriously slight and incident-starved melodrama that wears the label “Sundance Film Festival darling” with pride.
Martin Bonner is a man of faith who has pretty much lost his faith, but not his principles. In his 60s, he’s just taken a job as a volunteer coordinator for an ex-con mentoring ministry in Nevada. Something happened in his last job, at a church. Something keeps his adult artist son from taking his phone calls. The movie keeps those secrets.
Martin (Paul Eehoorn) is an unflappable native Australian, able to keep a straight face when he’s recruiting inmates for the program no matter how bitter and profane they come off. Travis (Richmond Arquette) becomes a pet project for Martin. Travis is fresh out of prison, a father long-estranged from his adult daughter and an ex-con with his own problematic past.
Writer-director Chad Hartigan switches point of view from time to time. Not that this really livens things up. See Martin visit an auction, furnish his spare apartment and try out speed dating. See Travis settle in at his new job, parking lot attendant. See Martin go to auctions and try to flip antiques on eBay. See Travis bullied into hiring a hooker (Allie Braun). Watch Martin referee a girls’ soccer game.
The movie is only 83 minutes long, yet is packed with scenes that only modestly flesh out character and do nothing to advance the story. Martin’s idle chitchat with his daughter on the phone yields the revelation that “I am still alive.” Travis wanders Reno, far from the gambling district, sorting out his life in long tracking shots and camera pans.
The players utterly inhabit their banal characters, but Hartigan only delivers a couple of scenes that merit all this attention to detail. The message, that there are those who set an example, through patience, kindness and consideration, is worth relishing. But even the big pay-off is somewhat shortchanged.
This feels like a movie whose back story (Hartigan made it for $42,000) overwhelmed its content, at least in the thin air of the mountains around Park City, Utah, where the Sundance Film Festival is held. Seen in the cold light of day and where oxygen is more plentiful, this is pretty thin gruel.
THIS IS MARTIN BONNER
Cast: Paul Eenhoorn, Richmond Arquette, Sam Buchanan
Written and directed by Chad Hartigan. A Monterey Media release.
Running time: 1:23
MPAA rating: Unrated, with sex and profanity