Sundance 2013: THIS IS MARTIN BONNER Review

     January 18, 2013

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As I said in my review of Price Check, a relatable situation does not create relatable or compelling characters.  It’s important to have an emotional connection to a character, but it’s also important to transport us to a place or a situation we don’t normally experience.  I don’t need to spend time seeing someone order food at Denny’s or read a book while eating dinner.  Chad Hartigan‘s This Is Martin Bonner attempts to connect us into our lead protagonists by showing the loneliness of their mundane lives, but their situations are so crushingly dull that we can never create a bond despite the solid performances of lead actors Paul Eenhoorn and Richmond Arquette.

Martin Bonner (Eenhoorn) has begun a job as a volunteer in a Christian-based transitional program for parolees.  He strikes up a friendship with the recently released Travis Holloway (Arquette) after giving Travis a lift to his motel.  From there, we see these two lonely men try to make connections to the outside world.  Martin tries speed dating and reselling items on eBay; Travis has sex with a hooker and having dinner with devoutly Christian family.  But Martin and Travis’ only real connection seems to come from when they’re enjoying a cup of coffee together.

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Aside from their coffee meetings, these sporadic events don’t have any lasting impact on Martin and Travis because the characters are one-dimensional, and the situations lack energy and purpose.  To wit a friend of mine when we saw another dull picture back in high school (Death in Venice) , “Man, even the sex scenes are boring.”  Hartigan seems so bent on making sure his characters always use their indoor voices that none of the scenes seem particularly important or urgent.  A sense of ennui washes over the picture as the film’s central relationship between Martin and Travis lacks emotional intimacy.  Their most intense moment stems from a misunderstanding regarding the attendance of a lunch date.

The lack of emotion is particularly frustrating because Hartigan seems reluctant to give Eenhoorn and Arquette any latitude to stretch their characters.  Subtlety and authenticity are important, but so is making sure your character is more than polite and inoffensive.  Martin engages in various activities like being a referee for a girls’ soccer team (how he got this job is never explained) or going to an art museum, but they don’t give us any substantial insight into his character.  For all of Hartigan’s emphasis on creating relatable situations, Martin’s most honest scenes are his phone conversations with his adult children.  That’s where the character’s loneliness becomes tangible, but the film rarely seizes these kinds of moments.

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This Is Martin Bonner has a promising opening scene as Martin sits down to talk with Locy (Demetrius Grosse), a convict who might be a good candidate for the release program.  The convict rejects the program, ridicules its religious backing, and dismisses Martin.  Desperate for conflict, I wished Hartigan would return us to Locy because he seems interesting, angry, conflicted, and compelling.  Instead, I spent most of the film wondering if Martin ever managed to resell a lamp on eBay.

Rating: D

Click here for all our Sundance 2013 coverage.  Click on the corresponding links for my previous reviews:

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