Review: 'This Is Martin Bonner,' and It's Wonderful

This Is Martin Bonner

I interviewed a former TV executive last year, and we got to talking about the seeming decline of narrative television in favor of reality shows, at which point she offered a bit of wisdom that's stuck with me ever since. "Look at an old movie, and see how much time they spent on a single face. See how people were mesmerized in the dark," she enthused. "You still can be. It may be old-fashioned, but you’re still compelled, you’re still drawn in. Those old guys knew what they were doing."

As a devout fan of fiction -- and someone who is, ahem, old enough to have been raised on the comparatively slow-paced movies of the '70s and '80s -- I was always inclined to agree with that quote, and I've thought about it often in the months since our interview. But I don't know if I've seen a modern film that exemplifies its truth more powerfully than This Is Martin Bonner, a downright marvelous drama about a few things that happen during a few weeks in the lives of two men.

That isn't exactly the most scintillating description, but on the surface, that's really all there is to it; as the movie opens, you're introduced to Martin (Paul Eenhorn), a newly hired liaison at a post-release rehabilitation program for convicts in the Reno prison system. There's nothing showy about Martin -- he's on the wintry cusp of late middle age, he speaks quietly, and as we soon learn, he's recently relocated to Reno, where he's living alone, an undefined distance away from his grown children. He loves them -- we know this because he tells them so over the phone. His daughter hears the words during their brief, politely affectionate conversations; his son, too busy or too alienated (or too much of either) to answer Martin's calls, hears them via voicemail.

The company Martin works for doesn't offer early release; in fact, it asks more of its entrants before they leave the penal system, requiring them to give up certain privileges (like TV) in order to focus on getting themselves ready for re-entry into society. It's the kind of program you need to really want to work in order for it to succeed -- and when we meet Travis (Richmond Arquette), an ex-con just released into the program, we aren't sure what to make of him. He's got a certain nervous energy about him and a haunted look in his eyes. But -- and here's one of the beautiful little fulcrums that This Is Martin Bonner rests on -- Martin doesn't seem to notice any unease or threat of violence from Travis. He accepts him calmly and quietly, and as the moments after their meeting gracefully unfurl, you feel the beginnings of a friendship start to emerge.

That's this movie's narrative framework, and it's as simple and sturdy as a Shaker chair. There are conflicts, there is sorrow, there are mistakes, but above all, there is grace; in fact, if This Is Martin Bonner has a message to impart, it seems to be a gentle plea for acceptance -- not only of other humans with their idiosyncracies and their flaws, but of ourselves, and the way our changing relationship with the world around us can provoke unexpected circumstances. That's actually fairly heady stuff for a slender 83-minute movie to deal with, and it would have been incredibly easy for writer/director Chad Hartigan to tip into sentimentality or melodrama, but This Is Martin Bonner never loses its remarkably clear-eyed, compassionate focus on these characters. You feel like you're getting a window into the lives of real people -- and more importantly, they're actually people you'd like to meet.

Hartigan deserves no small amount of credit for this, but he was aided immeasurably by his leading men; Eenhorn and Arquette are outstanding, each man doing more acting with his eyes than most busfuls of actors cold manage with their entire bodies. Each role could have been thankless in its own way -- Martin is the kind of character who tells the audience more with the things he doesn't say, and Travis could have been a miserable hangdog foil in the wrong hands -- but both men get so deep inside their fictional counterparts that you can forget you're watching a construct. Not a movement, not a line, not a frame is out of place, and the end result is so powerful that something as simple as an arm around a shoulder can prove heartbreakingly tender.

This is not a fast-moving film. Even at 83 minutes, it might feel slow for anyone weaned on quick cuts, handicams, and CG spectacle. But if you consider yourself any kind of film fan, I can't recommend This Is Martin Bonner highly enough. See how much time it spends on a single face. See yourself mesmerized in the dark.

This Is Martin Bonner is now available on Netflix Instant and various VOD platforms.

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About Jeff Giles

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Jeff is an entertainment writer and editor whose work currently appears at a variety of sites, including Rotten Tomatoes, Paste, American Songwriter, Popdose, Dadnabbit, Diffuser, and Ultimate Classic Rock.

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