Honest Characters, Stellar Performances Carry ‘This is Martin Bonner’

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CHICAGO – Having recently had its Windy City premiere at the 2013 Chicago Critics Film Festival after winning a major award at Sundance, Chad Hartigan’s “This is Martin Bonner” is a character drama that could be read as a commentary on the intangible things we can do for the needy beyond financial help, job-finding, or religious guidance but also works purely as a simple tale of two men who form a unique, unexpected friendship. It’s a very low-key, slowly paced piece that has a cumulative power through its honesty and realism. So much so that by the time it climaxes in a scene at a diner, I couldn’t have been more riveted to the screen and it was purely through the truth of the performances. There may not be much story here but there’s so much more character than we’re used to seeing that one doesn’t care.

Martin Bonner (Paul Eenhoorn) is a former business manager for a church who now finds himself working for a company that guides convicts through their final months behind bars and first ones outside of the joint. In the opening scene, he gets into something of a verbal confrontation with a potential “client,” a man to whom he gives the pitch about work training and the minimum wage that comes with it only to be asked what Bonner really brings to the table. Minimum wage at a crappy job? That’s all you got? In some ways, the plot of “This is Martin Bonner” comes from that discussion in that it’s about the kind of support and understanding that we can bring to people that’s not so easily quantifiable.

This is Martin Bonner
This is Martin Bonner
Photo credit: Monterey Media

Bonner is a kind, simple man, who has found himself in a new town in Nevada (where no one was born and raised; only moved there). He speaks regularly to his daughter on the phone and leaves messages for a harder-to-reach son. His daughter has signed him up for online dating, to which he reluctantly submits with a sly grin on his face from the knowledge that she’s really just trying to make him happy. He has barely unpacked, makes simple meals in his tiny apartment, and doesn’t seem to have much friends. He’s not unlike an ex-con trying to start a new life — which is why I think he takes to Travis Holloway (Richmond Arquette), one of Bonner’s colleague’s clients who finds an easier connection with Bonner than his assigned “sponsor,” Steve Helms (Robert Longstreet).

Travis has been in jail for 12 years but seems to be a nice enough guy that adjustment isn’t overly difficult. He finds a small motel room, a decent job as a parking attendant, and even gets some cheesy sweaters to wear from the company. But he’s not as religious as Steve, finding it easier to talk to Martin, although neither are what one would call verbose. They’re simple men who you wouldn’t notice in a diner and Hollywood certainly wouldn’t make protagonists of a blockbuster film. And yet one shouldn’t think for a second that this sort of realism is “easy.” Filmmakers often strive for realism and fall into that giant chasm in between contrived moviemaking and simple truth. The gentle brilliance of “Bonner” is that it takes what could be considered a thin story by some people and argues that the believability of the characters matters more than what they’re doing.

This is Martin Bonner
This is Martin Bonner
Photo credit: Monterey Media

Hartigan is ably assisted by two fantastic performances from Eenhorn and Arquette, two average guys with unique physical traits. Eenhorn’s Australian accent makes him stand out in the flat land of Nevada (Hartigan loves long shots of the barren nothingness of this part of the world with flat, boring architecture and always-crowded freeways) while Arquette (yes, it’s ANOTHER Arquette) simply has a memorable face. He plays Travis often kind of hunched over, hands in his pockets, and yet never goes the menacing ex-con route that many other actors would have taken. Both gentlemen are stellar.

Is “This is Martin Bonner” too slight? Arguably. And yet that aforementioned diner scene is one of the most dramatically satisfying in quite some time. Hartigan doesn’t build his story in traditional ways, allowing the foundation of character to be his rising action. There’s not a false beat in “This is Martin Bonner”; not a line that feels out of place or forced. These characters have complex pasts that aren’t completely spelled out and futures that feel like they exist beyond the roll of the credits. They are memorable characters not because of what they do but because of how completely we believe who they are.

“This is Martin Bonner” stars Paul Eenhorn and Richmond Arquette. It was written and directed by Chad Hartigan. It played at the 2013 Chicago Critics Film Festival.

HollywoodChicago.com content director Brian Tallerico

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