Nothing happens in This Is Martin Bonner, and that’s the best thing about it. In truth, that’s not quite fair: Chad Hartigan’s second feature, while not exactly packed with incident, has its share of decisive and revealing moments; it’s just that it’s left open what decisions have been made, and what’s been revealed.
In spite of his star billing, Martin Bonner’s protagonist, played by Paul Eenhoorn, is almost pathologically even-tempered, and possessed of a fluid mixture of wry self-deprecation and midlife depression. He’s a recent transplant to Nevada—filmed by Hartigan and cinematographer Sean McElwee as an endless flat landscape shadowed by a gravid sky—having relocated after a divorce cost him the life he knew and his church-affiliated job. Now he’s helping recently released prison inmates, including shy, sturdy Richmond Arquette, find their way back into society, while still very much unsure of his own place.
Hartigan’s minimalism, which pairs wide-open frames with Keegan DeWitt’s Bedhead-style burble, leaves large stretches of story untold. What, for example, is the Australian Eenhoorn doing in the U.S., and how did a member of a psychedelic rock band called Kopyrite end up working for the Lord? He admits he no longer believes in sacrificing himself to a greater good—one morning, he says, “I woke up selfish and it hasn’t gone away”—but faith, like life, is a habit he can’t seem to break. (Incidentally, the scene where a tipsy Eenhoorn plays air guitar to Kopyrite’s “Guinevere” is dually poignant considering that was a real band, and Eenhoorn wrote and played on the song.)
As Eenhoorn plays him, Martin is a man who’s just beginning to begin again, no farther along than the teenage girls whose soccer games he referees on weekends. Arquette, by contrast, desperately wants another shot, especially at connecting with the child he hasn’t seen in 12 years, but he doesn’t know how to start. When he and his daughter (Sam Buchanan) finally do meet for an awkward chain-restaurant lunch, he starts by asking her about childhood friends without acknowledging the time that’s passed. “I don’t even know her on Facebook,” his daughter replies to one such query, which just confuses him further. “Oh, you mean like on the Internet,” he says.
This Is Martin Bonner is carried out with such understated precision that small details have profound resonances: Arquette’s father-daughter reunion is painful to watch, but there’s a germ of hope in the unremarked coincidence that both order their sandwiches without mayo. Martin’s relationships with his children follow a similar course; we never see or even hear his estranged son, but the tone of Eenhoorn’s straight-to-voicemail calls carves a subtle arc. It’s a brief wisp of a movie, but one that’s not easy to shake.