The mordant side of Jewish humor is pushed to an extreme in Shawn Snyder’s debut feature “To Dust.” This gently absurdist — yet also sometimes downright icky — tale revolves around a grief-stricken Hasidic widower who enlists a Gentile biology teacher in an obsessive quest to grasp the decomposition process of his late wife’s body. As story concepts go, that’s an exceptionally unappealing one, particularly for what plays mostly as a low-key buddy comedy. Nonetheless, the deft execution and astute lead performances ultimately make this acquired taste of a movie not only digestible, but rather charming.
Despite the considerable support of his Upstate New York Orthodox community and all its reassuring rituals around death, 40ish cantor Shmuel (Hungarian thesp Geza Rohrig, looking considerably older than he did in Laszlo Nemes’ 2015 “Son of Saul”) can’t seem to cope after his spouse dies of cancer. His live-in mother (Janet Sarno) provides for the basic needs of his two young sons (Leo Heller, Sammy Voit), but they have their own grief and other emotional wants, and Shmuel’s tormented self-absorption constitutes a form of parental neglect.
He’s plagued by nightmares (animated sequences designed by Robert Morgan) in which parts of his late wife’s corpse assume grotesque and fantastical forms. Fearing “her soul is suffering as she returns to the Earth,” he first consults an impatient coffin salesman for details on how bodies “dismantle” themselves after burial. Rebuffed, he next goes to a secular community college and ends up in the classroom of science professor Albert (Matthew Broderick), who’s nonplussed by this man with ringlets from a culture completely foreign to him. Nor is he terribly pleased once he begins to understand what Shmuel wants from him — although insight into biological processes turns out to be just the tip of that particular iceberg.
Nonetheless, a reluctant partnership develops, with Albert frequently appalled but also feeling curiously obligated to help this new acquaintance through his bizarre path of personal mourning — which comes to involve the acquisition and burial of livestock (to observe decomposition in action); lab experiments on dirt from Shmuel’s wife’s gravesite; and finally a road trip to a forensic “body farm” where criminals’ corpses are allowed to decay in the open for scientific research.
Some of this is unpleasant, (notably graphic footage from a 1960s medical education film), some less funny than it thinks (an episode with a live pig in Albert’s apartment is labored slapstick), and all of it requires considerable suspension of disbelief. Shmuel is a devout man, yet he grossly, repeatedly violates his own religious beliefs and their strict behavioral rules in pursuit of a rather murky catharsis. Nor is it easy to accept that Albert wouldn’t simply walk away at various points, or at least cut to the chase and explain things to Shmuel in a way that would ease his mind more quickly, with less awkward and occasionally law-breaking fuss.
But if Snyder and Jason Begue’s screenplay never fully loses a sense of conceptual contrivance, “To Dust” still succeeds most of the time in terms of tone and performance, its deadpan tenor providing a flattering setting for the first-rate leads. Rohrig invests his protagonist with a pathos both tragic and humorously batty, while Broderick’s paunchy, addled, profanity-spouting divorced professor — rather like his “Election” character gone a couple of decades further to disillusioned seed — confirms his completed transition from aging juvenile star to peerless comic character actor. (No one is more naturally suited to the kinds of milquetoast types Matt Damon periodically gains 50 pounds in order to impersonate.) There are a number of bright supporting turns, many limited to a single scene. And the young actors playing Shmuel’s sons get a nice subplot of their own in which they guilelessly swallow schoolmates’ suggestion that irrational-acting dad has become possessed by a dybbuk.
“To Dust” is modestly but thoughtfully assembled in aesthetic terms, with an aptly somber pallet to Alexandra Kaucher’s production design and DP Xavi Giminez’s concise compositions. An alternately sorrowful and spectral string score by Ariel Marx is abetted by just two cleverly chosen preexisting tracks: Tom Waits’ wheezy lament “Blow Wind Blow” and the amusingly incongruous use of Jethro Tull’s arena-rock classic “Aqualung.”