Writer-director Chad Hartigan's "This is Martin Bonner" (available on VOD) is, in scope, one of the smallest films I've ever seen. Yet by focusing on just a few weeks in the lives of two ordinary men, refusing to contrive conflict, and giving his actors room to find the goodness in their characters' souls, Hartigan has effected a cinematic achievement of quiet grace, uncommon beauty and lasting resonance.
Martin Bonner (Paul Eenhoorn) is an Aussie by way of Maryland, with two adult children back in Annapolis. He had been a business manager for a church, but was fired after divorcing his wife and now works in Reno, coordinating volunteers for a religious ministry that matches soon-to-be-released prisoners with mentors to ease their re-integration into society. When one of Martin’s volunteers is waylaid, he drives to the penitentiary himself to pick up Travis Holloway (Richmond Arquette), who’s just completed a twelve-year sentence for a DUI manslaughter. Their relationship will form the core of the film.
Travis has an assigned mentor, Steve (Robert Longstreet), whom he likes. Steve and his wife invite him over for dinner. They are highly religious, and Travis does not begrudge them their belief or the love they share. Travis too believes in God. But he asks Martin for more of his time because he senses in him a more kindred spirit, one who admits to his own crisis of faith. They meet for coffee at Martin’s breakfast hangout before Travis catches the bus to his new job as a parking lot attendant.
Martin is himself constructing a new life. He attends a local antique auction and bids $35 on a lamp, which he then places on eBay, hoping to double his money. He speaks every couple of days with his daughter, who has signed him up for speed dating. (The only element I didn’t buy was Martin’s not getting any matches; he’s nice looking, tall and thin, with that Oz accent the ladies love.) On weekends, he referees soccer matches. In the title role, Eenhoorn makes a lot out of a little, creating a complete character with a lifetime’s worth of backstory and genuine generosity in his heart.
What’s so wonderful about “This is Martin Bonner” is how consistently it surprises you with the way scenes don’t play out, the voices that aren’t raised, the tempers that don’t flare. In this regard, Arquette’s performance is a minor miracle. His slightly pale, slightly pudgy frame tucked into a dated denim jacket, his eyes vigilant if not quite darting, he looks every inch a man just out of a long stretch in stir. He keeps us waiting for an explosion that never comes. Travis agrees to engage a young prostitute who solicits him, his motivations a mix of kindness, protectiveness, loneliness and pent-up sexual need. Nothing goes wrong. He accompanies Martin to one of his soccer matches and does not make an inappropriate advance toward any of the athletic young women. His daughter (Sam Buchanan) comes up from Arizona to visit him. They meet for lunch at a Carrows (Travis brings Martin). There is no manufactured melodrama, no shouting matches or tearful absolution.
Some people will see “This is Martin Bonner” and lament that “nothing happens.” In truth, for these two men, these are the first days of the rest of their lives, with nothing less than their happiness at stake. And Hartigan, besides capturing the stillness and quietude of Reno in some beautiful twilight skyscapes, displays the confidence and assuredness of a master director decades his senior. He has an infallible ear for dialogue. I cannot wait to see his next work.
Until then, I’ll think of the unreturned voicemails Martin leaves for his successful artist son throughout the film. Does his son hate him? No. In the final scene, Martin opens a large package. In it is one of his son’s new paintings, a series of colored lines, perhaps pointing toward the future. Martin removes it carefully and hangs it on the otherwise bare living room wall of his one-bedroom apartment. And smiles.