Saintliness and cinema are an odd couple, enough so that auds will be caught off-guard by “This Is Martin Bonner,” a mood piece, a character study and an exercise in poetic gesture possessed of a sort of evanescent, secular spirituality. Helmer Chad Hartigan’s second feature (after “Luke and Brie Are on a First Date”) is Americana of a very immediate sort, a tale of redemption that may leave its viewers with an uncanny sense of peace. The unconventional, imagistic approach to narrative will leave some folks out, but those aren’t the viewers Hartigan is after.
There’s no separating place from purpose here: The setting is Reno, a repository of lost souls and a hotbed of reinvention. The title character, played by the revelatory Australian thesp Paul Eenhoorn, is in a stage of not-quite-comfortable transition. Divorced, downsized and broke at age 58, he goes to work for a Christian philanthropy organization that helps ex-cons re-enter society. One of them, Travis (Richmond Arquette), has just been released after serving a term for DUI manslaughter, and after a few sessions with his emphatically Christian counselor (Robert Longstreet), he realizes that Martin is his kindred spirit, the one who can lead him to rehabilitation, perhaps even salvation.
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The viewer feels it, too, even if the reasons are slippery. Martin possesses an attractive sense of confidence and contentment, despite his troubles, which are underscored by the physical disorder of Nevada, the aesthetic nightmare of Reno and the movements of Sean McElwee’s camera. Furthermore, there’s a clear contrast between Martin and Travis, the older man gifted with a graceful bearing, the other a kind of Eeyore carrying his sins on his back.
The director’s script doesn’t spell everything out; Martin seems to harbor a profound melancholy about something in his past that he never addresses head-on. He has a daughter back east whom he speaks to frequently; his estranged son never returns his calls. He spends his free time at auctions, buying useless bric-a-brac that he immediately sells on EBay, or refereeing girls’ soccer games — seemingly an attempt to reconnect with a better place in his memory, and perhaps the spirit of his own children. But he also possesses an inner peace that’s contagious. How he attained it is a mystery, one to which Travis would like the answer.
For all the personal difficulties of his characters, Hartigan seems to be making the point that people create their own destinies. There’s not a lot of backstory vis-a-vis Travis beyond the fact that he killed someone, but his guilt is exacerbated by ongoing failings of character. When Travis’ daughter (Sam Buchanan) comes to visit, Martin bows out of the reunion — only to re-enter the scene and save it, when the father-daughter meeting has reached a crescendo of discomfort. If one suspects divine intervention of a Capra-esque variety, it isn’t totally unfounded.
“This Is Martin Bonner” isn’t long on narrative, but the performances by Eerhoorn, Arquette and Buchanan are wonderfully internalized, and the tone is of the piece is both consistent and convincing. Production values aren’t extraordinary, but McElwee’s fluid camerawork compensates for the low-budget look of the film.