Monday, December 30, 2013

This Is Martin Bonner

To begin, I must confess my gratitude for the Arts and Faith community, a forum of thinkers and writers who take both spirituality and art quite seriously. This online tribe introduced me to Chad Hartigan's film, This Is Martin Bonner, a quiet wonder of a film that has quickly risen onto my list of favorites for 2013, and a film I'll revisit for years to come.

The titular character is a man who is starting over. A divorcee with a new job and new apartment in Reno, Martin has moved away from his former life in Maryland to the cold winter of the Nevada desert. He works as the volunteer coordinator for a Christian organization that helps rehabilitate former prisoners back into society. In a small unadorned room, Bonner explains the process to an inmate about to be released in the next eighteen months. The inmate is hesitant, responding that he doesn't believe in all this "Jesus" stuff, and doesn't understand how the program proves to be beneficial. Martin simply sighs.

Two men sit across from a table and converse. These table conversations make up the majority of the dialogue in This Is Martin Bonner, particularly between Martin and newly released prisoner, Travis Holloway. While Travis is partnered with a Christian mentor through the program Martin oversees, Travis forms a bond with Martin and looks to him for relationship and connection, which a reluctant Martin eventually reciprocates. Over a table, Travis confesses why he wanted to meet with Martin instead of Steve, his mentor.

"I believe in God and all, but I feel like a fraud around him," Travis says.

"God?" Martin asks.

"No, Steve," Travis replies.

Martin's assumption of feeling like a fraud before God is the beginning revelation that both of these men are in the same boat--they are men at the end of themselves, learning how to navigate a new life on wobbly legs and a wobbly faith. Travis asks Martin if he's a Christian. Martin reveals that he is divorced, bankrupt, a man with a theology degree and years of leadership within a church, "but that doesn't mean anything." Travis replies, "Well it seems to me that it should mean everything or nothing, and I can’t get to either place, you know?" Martin knows all too well.

When Travis asks what caused the faith crisis, Martin asks for Travis to trust him with the knowledge of why he was in prison. Travis knows Martin could just look it up in the documentation, but Martin isn't interested in the facts as much as he is in the confession and the intimacy of trust. Travis confides the reason for his imprisonment--manslaughter due to drunk driving--and asks Martin about his faith. Martin sighs, and confesses that he just woke up selfish one morning, "and it hasn't gone away."

This Is Martin Bonner is filled with these sorts of table conversations, moments of quiet intimacy, authenticity, and depth of emotion. The actors feel so natural and fresh together that it's a wonder they're acting at all. They are human, through and through, two men journeying through the sacred ordinaryness of life. This is a film about renewed vision. At the onset of the film, Martin goes in for an eye appointment and is asked the question, "are you having trouble with your vision?" A sermon at Steve's church is about Jesus putting mud on the blind man's eyes and opening them for the first time. Two memorable scenes are 360-pans of Martin's apartment and the outside of Travis's motel room, a panoramic view of the new surroundings these men inhabit. Both Travis and Martin are finding a new framework and a new lens for viewing the world. They are seeing themselves, seeing each other, and perhaps even seeing Christ in the invisible connection between two human beings.


  1. Wow, Joel! I'm excited to see this film! I don't have the same passion for movies that you do so I appreciate your reviews:) This is one I will definitely see… THANK YOU!!!:)

    1. Hope you enjoy it and find it as thought-provoking and enlightening as I did, but keep in mind: it's rated R for "some language and brief sexuality".