Delightfully simple and efficient by eliminating everything that was not necessary to show.
This Is Martin Bonner
Chad Hartigan’s This Is Martin Bonner won the Best of NEXT Audience Award last year at the Sundance Film Festival, up against some fantastic competition (Computer Chess, Escape From Tomorrow, A Teacher, among others). Because the film is remarkably subtle and realistic, This Is Martin Bonner has a natural tendency to stick with you, even after the end credits roll. Although the film requires some patience from the audience, this slow-moving character study is exceptionally rewarding.
When we first meet Travis Holloway (Richmond Arquette) he explains to Martin Bonner (Paul Eenhoorn) how he has never been to Reno, Nevada yet he has technically lived there for the past twelve years. The reason being Travis has just completed his prison sentence at the correctional facility where Martin recently began working at as an inmate mentor. This is Martin’s first job since filing for bankruptcy three years ago. Both of these middle-aged men share the common position of trying to re-build their lives in an unfamiliar environment.
Just by looking at Travis’ kind eyes you can tell he is a soft-spoken man. And by the way he carries himself it is evident there is weight of regret on his shoulders. Eventually you find out the reason that sent Travis to prison for so long, but frankly, it is not all that important. What is important are his sincere efforts to start over in life and the struggles he endures trying to do so.
In the best scene in the film, we watch Travis attempt to re-connect with his daughter for the first time in twelve years. This takes a lot of courage, but he takes the edge off by misleading Martin into coming along as his safety net. It is heartbreaking when he fails to bond with his daughter, but Martins swoops in to save the day just as she is about to flea—bringing an uplifting moment to an otherwise somber story.
It is safe to say that This Is Martin Bonner is an incredibly minimalistic film. In fact, some of the best parts of the film are what we do not see. For example, we never see Martin’s children as he only interacts with them over the phone. Also, there are no dramatic flashbacks showing what Travis did to mark him as a criminal. Nor do we see him spend any time in prison. Chad Hartigan astutely focuses on how the characters approach their dilemmas instead of dwelling on what got them in there in the first place. By doing so, the audience is able to experience a character study in an authentic way that is not often shown.
At the very beginning these two characters do not seem to have much in common—having spent a great deal of time on opposite sides of the law–but by the end we see just how similar they really are. Never once does the film feel too heavy handed even though it had plenty of opportunities to do so. Particularly when religion gets brought up and the way the characters perceive it. In an attempt to seem more substantial a lot of filmmakers would have elected to add more dramatic intensity to the film. But by eliminating everything that was not necessary to show, This Is Martin Bonner is delightfully simple and efficient.