What do you say to a man just released from prison, after serving 12 years for manslaughter? What can you say to an ex-con who can’t find a job other than as a parking attendant, who meets his only daughter for the first time in 12 years, who awaits time passing by in an empty motel room across a screeching highway?
Not much, it seems, as somberly portrayed in the low-budget, low-key film This Is Martin Bonner, written and directed by Chad Hartigan. The 83-minute drama (rated R for language and brief sexual scenes) first premiered in the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Audience Award for Best of NEXT.
Martin Bonner (Paul Eenhoorn), an outreach counselor who helps prisoners transition to life outside of bars, has an uneventful life. You tag along on his day-to-day activities and errands—getting a new eyeglass prescription, air strumming to oldies on cassette, bidding on antiques on eBay—and you gradually learn that he once worked for a church that fired him for his divorce. He left Maryland for Nevada bankrupt and alone. His son won’t call him back, his daughter signs him up for speed dating, and he only accepted his current job at a Christian nonprofit organization in Reno because not even Starbucks would hire him.
One afternoon, Martin picks up Travis Holloway (Richard Arquette), who was just released from prison. Over coffee, Travis tells Martin in a deadpan voice, “You know, it’s funny. I’ve never been to Reno, but technically, I’ve been living here for 12 years.”
After that, Travis continues to seek Martin out because he finds his program sponsor Steve “really Christian.” He looks at Steve’s happy marriage, and feels “like a fraud next to him.” Martin shares his own crisis of faith: He woke up one morning and “didn’t want to go to church anymore,” he said. “I felt like I sacrificed enough for God.”
The moment is light-handed, sympathetic, and uncritical, but voices a raw question not all Christians are brave enough to admit: What’s next, when I no longer desire God … or feel His desire for me? The two men, both leading quiet lives of stretched-out fatigue, feed each other nibbles of support and comfort.
Christians may feel unsatisfied by the lack of clear-cut, Christ-led redemption in this story, but Hartigan, a nonbeliever whose parents were missionaries, sticks to a character-driven narrative, in which life—and faith—works out its kinks through moment-to-moment, ordinary progress. The shots are minimalistic, the acting pensive and poignant, and the dialogue alternates between candor and awkwardness. But they form a sensitive piece that depicts the repressed way human beings face crisis, and the odd, reserved friendship between two middle-aged men seeking second chances.