SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2013
By Don Simpson | January 29, 2013
Director: Chad Hartigan
Writer: Chad Hartigan
Starring: Paul Eenhoorn, Richmond Arquette, Sam Buchanan, Robert Longstreet, Demetrius Grosse, Tom Plunkett, Kristin Slaysman
Winner of The Best of Next Audience Award at Sundance 2013, writer-director Chad Hartigan’s This Is Martin Bonner plays like a gritty, 1970s odd couple character study. (Even the poster hearkens back to the glory days of the first wave of American independent cinema.) A masterful exercise in minimalism and subtlety, This Is Martin Bonner is an incredibly basic story, with absolutely no action or drama — and very little comedy — but this is precisely how and why Hartigan’s film excels.
Abiding by the classic design strategy, KISS (keep it simple stupid), Hartigan develops his film solely upon two very intriguing personas. Martin (Paul Eenhoorn) and Travis (Richmond Arquette) are polar opposites who by sheer happenstance grow to recognize that they share a certain kinship. Both men have recently relocated to Nevada out of absolute necessity. After being unemployed for two years — and having recently declared bankruptcy — Martin had no choice but to leave his children behind on the east coast and move to Reno for his one and only job offer. So, he has come to Reno to work as the volunteer coordinator for a non-profit that helps ex-convicts make the transition from prison back into the real world. This is how Martin meets Travis, an ex-con who has just been released after serving a twelve-year prison sentence.
Literally sent back into society with nothing, Travis finds himself clothed in ugly sweaters provided to him by his über-Christian sponsor, Steve (Robert Longstreet). While Travis appreciates Steve’s assistance, he finds it very difficult to connect on a personal level with a fanatic Jesus freak; so he decides to meet up with the much more personable Martin for a friendly chat. It quickly becomes apparent that Martin and Travis are both having difficult times acclimating to their new lives in Reno and this is the initial connection that sparks their unexpected friendship.
This Is Martin Bonner draws very subtle comparisons between Travis’ time in prison and Martin’s recent economic hardship. Both men have been beaten into submission by their pasts, though Hartigan very sparingly reveals any fleeting hints to their backstories. Guilt obviously weighs heavily upon each of them, making them feel incomplete and incompetent because they have become so disconnected from their children.
It is also very interesting to observe Martin and Travis’ reactions to Christianity. Martin may be employed by a Christian non-profit organization, but he holds a grudge against the greed of organized religion; and Travis, for all intents and purposes, is an atheist. As much as they both seem to resent it, they owe their new lives to a Christian organization; but, in a strange sort of way, they seem to owe their existential awakenings and rebirth as human beings to each other.