EDINBURGH – This year’s trip to the Edinburgh Film Festival has been a brief, last-minute one. After three days of attempting to distil the highlights of artistic director Chris Fujiwara’s defiantly independent-minded programming — ranging from “The Conjuring” to “Leviathan” –, I’m heading home this evening, my festival experience over before it’s even begun. (Tomorrow: off to Karlovy Vary.) Still, I’ll be sharing the standouts with you in a couple of paired review pieces. First up: “This Is Martin Bonner,” which begins its staggered release tomorrow, and “Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction” — which, it was announced yesterday, will be released in Los Angeles on September 13.
First, let’s get the weird bit out of the way: yes, it feels a bit strange to be reviewing a film from a former member of the In Contention family. But it’s a strangeness born of familiarity and unfamiliarity at once. I had never met Chad Hartigan, our erstwhile box-office analyst, when I first saw his sophomore feature “This Is Martin Bonner” (B+) at Sundance in January; after viewing this unassumingly personal dual character study, particularly on a second go-round in Edinburgh, I felt I knew him a bit better. That’s entirely the film’s achievement, and I’ve been wanting to discuss it for some time. After all, if I didn’t sincerely think “This Is Martin Bonner” was remarkable, it’d be easy enough to duck out of discussing it on grounds of principle.
In any event, longtime readers who remember Hartigan for his casually caustic box office columns may or may not be surprised by his film’s calm generosity of spirit; “decency” isn’t much of a buzzword in the current, irony-fuelled indie realm, but “Martin Bonner” posses a pure, palpable strain of it from first cleanly composed frame to last. The rare contemporary film about Christian behavior that doesn’t go out of its way to announce its secularity, it’s equally unpatronizing in its sharp articulation of loneliness in middle age and beyond.
“This Is Martin Bonner” is, it should be said, a somewhat misleading title for what turns out to be a democratically balanced two-man portrait — and then, the eponymous Bonner, directly inspired by Hartigan’s own father, never entirely reveals who he is. A sixty-ish divorcee resettling and rebuilding his life in, of all places, Reno — a city perhaps better known for tearing lives down — Bonner (played by an extraordinary discovery in Paul Eenhoorn) is a warm, open presence in his dealings with others, but we never wholly learn who “this” is. Working for a Christian charity that guides newly-released ex-cons toward the straight and narrow, he keeps his pain close to his chest so as to handle that of others: we never learn the reason behind his divorce, nor his evidently non-hostile estrangement from his grown son. (He has a happier relationship with his daughter, whose breezy chats over the phone nonetheless betray her concern over her dad’s late life switch.)
An unfazed outsider — with an Australian accent — who wears his faith with modest conviction rather than evangelical zeal, he proves the ideal mentor for Travis (Richmond Arquette), a sad-sack type just out of prison after serving time for manslaughter, and looking to reconnect with his daughter. Martin appears to have done less than Travis to earn his child’s distance, but this mutual lack — coupled with their quiet yearning for company — suggests the men aren’t worlds apart, despite appearances to the contrary. Stopping short of any contrived moral conclusions, the film leaves us to ponder what intangible spiritual contentment distinguishes one man from the other — what it is, if not personal actions and circumstances, that separates a “good” life from a “wasted” one.
This is regrettably rare, unfashionable thematic territory for modern film drama: a study in human goodness, of both the innate and hard-earned varieties, and the everyday challenges of being alone. Hartigan gets the performances he needs to animate, but not overwhelm, material this tonally refined and morally patient. As played with unwavering delicacy and twinkling good humor by Eenhoorn, Martin is both what we’d like our dads to be, and what we fear they may become. The actor teases out the dignified sadness masked by the character’s unapologetically dorky zen demeanor, and the performance works in effective contrast to the touching dolefulness of Arquette, playing a man who hasn’t yet mastered that concealment.
In marked contrast to his scrappy debut “Luke and Brie Are on a First Date,” Hartigan’s filmmaking is in the same still, soft register as his leading men; he’s abetted by cinematographer Sean McElwee, who brings a bleak elegance to the formless Reno cementscapes, and the wonderful composer Keegan DeWitt, whose great skill lies in pairing somber notes with playful ones. Indeed, there’s an unshakeable melancholy to “This Is Martin Bonner” that proves sneakily uplifting once you let it sit with you awhile. The film begins its slow-burning theatrical rollout in the US tomorrow. I hope audiences find it. (Look out for my interview with Hartigan in the coming week.)
I’d be hard pressed to pinpoint any direct similarities between “This Is Martin Bonner” and Sophie Huber’s lovely documentary “Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction” (B+), beside their shared interest in older men gently fighting for their place in the world. Still, I don’t think it’s merely because I saw the films in close proximity to each other that I’d be tempted to place them on a double bill: affectionate but not fawning, Huber’s unfussy portrait of the 86-year-old actor and singer left me with much the same sense of sorrowful optimism.
At one point in this stylishly composed talking-heads exercise — shot, often in crisp monochrome, by Oscar nominee Seamus McGarvey — Stanton’s current personal assistant refers to him as “the Forrest Gump of cinema.” Not, he hastens to add, because of any intellectual deficiencies on the part of the actor, who often speaks in a kind of artless poetic register, but because he seems to have stumbled, without much awareness or calculation, into one cinematic landmark after another over the course of his 200-film career. From vivid supporting characterizations in film ranging from “Cool Hand Luke” to “Alien,” to his belated leading-man debut (aged 57) in Wim Wenders’s “Paris, Texas” (the same year he earned further cult cred in “Repo Man”), even to an appearance in last year’s monolithic blockbuster “The Avengers,” he’s a kind of scruffy spirit animal for American film, at once indispensable and unacknowledged.
This belated celebration doesn’t play any formal or structural tricks: a succession of colleagues and admirers, ranging from David Lynch to Debbie Harry to Kris Kristofferson, turn up to pay their respects in a chatty, anecdote-strewn manner, while Stanton himself reflects on his career with a mixture of detached bemusement and salty wit — and the occasional sweetly-sung country tune. It’s a casual, conversational affair that seems in keeping with Stanton’s own unmannered acting style — generously reflected in well-chosen clips from some of his key films. (The churlish would accuse Huber of being over-reliant on these, but no director who includes significant stretches of “Paris, Texas” in her film is going to hear any complaint from me.)
Beyond the hilariously related revelation that Stanton was once dumped by Rebecca DeMornay in favor of Tom Cruise, the film isn’t much interested in extensive, demystifying biographical detail on a subject who professes to having been a lifelong loner: “I don’t give much away,” he amiably warns Huber at one point, and he largely sticks to that promise, albeit in an engagingly humble fashion. “Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction” is the rare star portrait that enhances its subject’s mystique rather than dismantling it; the man behind the myth is apparent, with the myth itself yet to receive its due after seven decades at work, the film’s happy to examine both.