×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘To Dust’

A Hasidic widower's grief becomes the stuff of grotesque comedy in Shawn Snyder's oddly charming film.

Director:
Shawn Snyder
With:
Geza Rohrig, Matthew Broderick, Leo Heller, Sammy Voit, Janet Sarno, Stephanie Kurztuba, Ben Hammer, Larry Owens, Bern Cohen, Aaron Raskin, Jill Marie Lawrence, Joseph Spirit, Zlman Raskin, Sarah Jes Austell, Natalie E. Carter, Marceline Hugot.

One hour 32 minutes

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.”

Film Review: 'To Dust'

Reviewed online, San Francisco, April 22, 2018. (In Tribeca Film Festival — Special Screenings.) Running time: 92 MIN.

Production: A Wing & Prayer Pictures and King Bee production in association with Storyland Pictures, Big Jack Prods., Cool Prods., Bron Life, Salem Street Entertainment and UnLtd Prods. (International sales: Gersh, Beverly Hills.) Producers: Alessandro Nivola, Emily Mortimer, Ron Perlman, Josh Crook, Scott Lochmus. Executive producers: Jonathan Gray, Joseph Siprut, Aaron L. Gilbert, Anjay Nagpal, Jed Webber, Laura Rosenthal, Tom Remis, David Moscow, Jason Dreyer, Ali Jazayeri, Viviana Zarragoitia, David Boies, David Stone. Co-producer, Jason Begue.

Crew: Director: Shawn Snyder. Screenplay: Jason Begue, Snyder. Camera (color, widescreen, HD): Xavi Giminez. Editor: Allyson C. Johnson. Music: Ariel Marx.

With: Geza Rohrig, Matthew Broderick, Leo Heller, Sammy Voit, Janet Sarno, Stephanie Kurztuba, Ben Hammer, Larry Owens, Bern Cohen, Aaron Raskin, Jill Marie Lawrence, Joseph Spirit, Zlman Raskin, Sarah Jes Austell, Natalie E. Carter, Marceline Hugot.

More Film

  • John Hodges

    Jax Media Taps A24 Co-Founder John Hodges as Head of New Film Division

    TV production powerhouse Jax Media is expanding into film and tapped John Hodges, one of the founding partners of A24, as its new head of film. “I’m thrilled to be joining the team at Jax,” Hodges said. “Theirs is a potent brand that I’ve admired for a long time, and their reputation as innovative partners [...]

  • Hong Kong's TVB Plans OTT Boost,

    Hong Kong's TVB Plans OTT Boost, Sets 'Court Lady' With Huanyu

    Hong Kong’s Television Broadcasts is set to boost its OTT platforms locally and abroad with new packages and initiatives targeting the Southeast Asian market. The city’s biggest broadcaster has also renewed its partnership with China’s Huanyu Entertainment following the wild success the two enjoyed last year with court rivalry drama “Story of Yanxi Palace.” The [...]

  • Blue Planet II

    Documentaries Show Strong Signs of Growth in Global Markets

    Nearly 40% of exhibitors at FilMart this year are currently involved in documentary films. This year, there are 290 such exhibitors from 26 countries and regions, an increase of 30% from the year before, and 24 nonfiction titles in screening sessions, nearly double last year’s 13 titles. The market launched its “Doc World” section in [...]

  • Palanquin Offers New Business Model for

    Palanquin Offers New Business Model for East-West Productions in SVoD Era

    For Westerners making movies in Asia, logistics can be problematic. And, for Asian filmmakers able to navigate local conditions, screenwriting for international audiences and access to markets can still be stumbling blocks. Veteran producer and executive Guy Louthan (“The Mist,” “Raising Arizona”) is now developing a business that straddles East and West, deploys American production [...]

  • 'The Fall,' 'Out of Crimes' and

    Oriental Intl. Debuts at FilMart With Six New Films and Classic Fare

    Oriental Intl. makes its FilMart sales debut with a line-up of six new titles and a library of 20 arthouse classics and shorts. The firm is the Hong Kong branch of Chinese state-run radio and TV broadcaster CRI-CIBN’s smart TV division. The company has five employees but only one employee based permanently in Hong Kong. [...]

  • Ethnic Minorities in Spotlight at Hong

    Ethnic Minorities in Spotlight at Hong Kong Asian Project Market

    Historically, ethnic minorities around the world have suffered, and 2019 sees no change in this regard. A brace of HAF projects highlight some of the problems faced by them. From Iran, Arsalan Amiri’s horror/black comedy “Zalava” is set in a village terrified by demonic possession, where a young, agnostic police officer arrests challenges local beliefs [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content