Chad Hartigan’s This Is Martin Bonner isn’t a flashy film. It’s quiet and contemplative, but it’s likable. I don’t mean likable in the generic sense of just enjoying the film, bur rather it’s a story about some of the most likable characters you’ll ever watch, constantly doing things that make them seem all the more pleasant.
The film paints a portrait of loneliness and absence for two men, Martin Bonner (Paul Eenhoorn) and Travis (Richmond Arquette). Martin starts a job as a volunteer coordinator for a Christian prisoner rehabilitation program. He meets Travis the day that Travis is let out of prison and the two form a friendship over coffee. The only real similarity they have is that neither of them have anyone close in their lives as they’re both absent from their families, yet they bond through the need to start over.
There really isn’t any reason that the characters should be as likable as they are. We hardly get any real glimpse into their pasts, and they hardly do anything throughout the film, but they do that nothing so well. It’s the phenomenally written story from Hartigan that births the tone of the characters and the excellent dialogue that they speak, but it’s the performances by the two leads that really carry the film. Eenhoorn conveys a troubled past and a kindly soul in such a way that earns the audience’s empathy without grasping for it. The awkwardness and remorse with which Arquette handles Travis makes it impossible not to root for the man to succeed in life, however small those successes may be. Both characters are full of heart, and because of that, they’re relatable to almost anyone.
Extending past the two leads, it’s hard not to like every single character in the film on some level. While none of them are perfect, it seems that Hartigan has created a world where everyone is at least trying to make their lives something better. While some may view this as boring, I think it’s absolutely essential that we have films to positively portray the world. This Is Martin Bonner excellently fills that niche.
It isn’t a political film despite all the possibility for it. No judgement is passed on Travis for why he went to prison, or the way he tries to reconnect with his daughter. While some characters are fervently religious and others no longer believe in god, the film itself doesn’t seem to take either stance. Beliefs about God and the afterlife are presented as character traits rather than themes. Even the most poignant line in the film, “I believe in God, I just feel like I’m a fraud around him,” refuses to take a stand, it just provides some stunningly honest insight about the character. Some may view this technique as weak. I however find it refreshing that the film is ambiguous enough and leaves enough space for free interpretation by the audience, a trait that is often lacking in similar character studies.
The first thing that struck me about Travis is how he lacks edge. At first this was off-putting, but the more I’ve thought about it, the more I absolutely love a man fresh out of prison who is so far from the stereotypical prisoner shown in films. It’s an excellent look at the struggles a man who spent 12 years in prison is faced with, and how friendship and compassion can bridge the gap to a new, better life. It’s heartwarming to watch Travis try, especially in the scene between him and his daughter, which, like most scenes in the film, ends without much of a resolution.
Despite the likability of the film, there are still some glaring flaws. In the first half, the shifts in focus between characters is awkward. There are too many scenes where we see one and not the other. Imagine watching a TV show where one of the main characters doesn’t show up for an entire episode. The pacing becomes more even as the film goes on, but the start is a bit jarring.
While beautiful at times, there’s far too many scenes spent looking out the windows of cars and buses. Most of them seem to serve as unnecessary transitions between meaningful scenes. Almost all the transitions are forced. At times these out of place scenes allow the film and the audience space to breathe, but for the most part they’re awkward and feel very out of place. Many of these short scenes could’ve been cut and nothing would’ve been lost in terms of story.
The film is slow moving, somber, and lonely, but still pleasant throughout. Instead of being full of youthful exuberance as many slice-of-life films are, there’s a thoughtful middle-aged perspective to the film, which provides a great change of pace.
This Is Martin Bonner is a portrayal of loneliness, but an optimistic take on an otherwise extremely depressing subject leads to a film that’s full of hope. Overall, Hartigan’s patient approach and well-written story, combined with excellent performances from the two leads, makes for a very enjoyable film.
This Is Martin Bonner may be about absence, but there's no absence of heart in the story or the characters, which makes for an extremely enjoyable film.