Nothing Better Than The Real Thing: 'Museum Hours' and 'This Is Martin Bonner'
Neither film threatens earth with asteroids, aliens, zombies, or epidemics. Neither sensationalizes great moments in history. You won't see any actors indulging in moments that beg for Oscar glory. Instead, you'll have to slow down and be patient. Both films show more interest in pregnant pauses than snappy dialogue. Both ask us to enjoy the nuances of casual conversation, the details of unglamorous faces. (The greatest special effects in these films are their human beings.) And both are intently interested in encouraging us to look closer and see art, culture, our neighbors, and ourselves more clearly.
In the afterglow of both movies, I felt "the eyes of my eyes opened," to steal a phrase from e. e. cummings. Or, to borrow from Scripture, I felt a little bit "born again."
This Is Martin Bonner: Finding Grace in a Crisis of Faith
The prison doors have opened wide, and Travis has returned to Reno, Nevada. He needs to begin again. To find a job. To find his daughter. To find a friend.
But as he walks a long Nevada road, shivering in his denim jacket, it's clear: the world is a cold, hard place for the recently paroled. And if he doesn't find good help, he just might slide into a state of depression and alienation similar to that of the big screen's most famous Travis . . . the one who worked as a taxi driver.
But Travis is blessed to meet the figure in this movie's title: This Is Martin Bonner.
Martin looks like the smiling, white-haired, suit-and-tie guy who greets you with a handshake and a church bulletin when you visit a community Baptist church on a Sunday morning. But he's not a typical churchgoer—not anymore. Recently divorced, disillusioned by years of work as a church business manager, Martin's experiencing a crisis of faith. He, too, is starting over in Reno. He's working as an agent for a Christian ministry that helps prepare prison inmates for societal re-entry.
It's a tough job. Prisoners can be reluctant to cooperate. Who can trust "helpers" if they seem eager to refashion you according to the Jell-O mold of The Faithful?
Through seemingly incidental tangents, director Chad Hartigan brilliantly reveals the complexity, contrasts, and commonalities of his characters. Martin, lonely, takes a reluctant turn in Reno's speed-dating scene; Travis isn't immune to the sales pitch of a local prostitute. The telephone is Martin's lifeline to his children; the young daughter that Travis remembers has grown up into a stranger with a grudge. At auctions, Martin bids on items that he can, with a good camera and lighting, present as beautiful and re-sell for a better price; Travis might be mistaken for a hopeless case—but when seen through the eyes of compassion, he appears to have potential.
In one of the film's most revealing sequences, Travis has dinner at the home of a generous Christian couple. In their happiness and confidence, they only amplify Travis's feelings of disconnection and loneliness. Martin, by contrast—another broken man, wrestling with doubts, disappointments, and disconnection—seems like a kindred spirit.
Actor Richmond Arquette makes Travis a sympathetically sullen character. (Yes, actors Rosanna, Patricia, David, and Alexis Arquette have yet another talented sibling.) It's a revelatory turn by a guy whose most notable credit, until now, has been Guy Who Delivers the Cardboard Box in the final scene of David Fincher's Se7en.