This Is Martin Bonner begins with a bait and switch. Spending, as we do, the first few minutes of the film essentially watching a prisoner vulgarly vent about his post-parole options, it would be understandable to prematurely peg the film as an angry sort of criminal diatribe. But soon we realize that this introductory sequence isn't about the prisoner at all, but about the volunteer counselor sitting across the table from him, a meek older gentleman, Martin (Paul Eenhoorn), who attempts to defuse the inmate's rage seemingly out of sheer responsibility, with little extraneous effort beyond stock rebuttals—not a raised voice, a blunt retort, or even an angry look. Turns out it's one of Martin's first days on the job, and now relocated from the East Coast to the unexpectedly cold expanse of Reno, Nevada, it's not exactly the profession he would have chosen for himself at this stage in life. Yet it's this unassuming approach to both narrative development and characterization (we never meet the prisoner again, and Martin isn't what anyone would consider a typical protagonist) that epitomizes This Is Martin Bonner, a modest, beautifully told second feature by Los Angeles native Chad Hartigan.
Though there are few other scenes that capture Martin's professional life as an inmate mentor, the simultaneous sense of restraint and unease of the opening moments lingers over much of the film's first half. After a series of quiet moments capturing Martin alone, attending auctions, surfing eBay, calling his daughter, we meet Travis Holloway (Richmond Arquette), a middle-aged man traipsing methodically along an anonymous Reno highway, correctional facility looming in the distance. Travis, presumably just released from prison, then unexpectedly catches a ride with Martin, the two speaking over breakfast of their coincidental convergence in Nevada (both claim to have only recently arrived in town), before Martin drops his new acquaintance at a motel. Otherwise, little is offered in regard to either character's greater intent for their relationship, their exchanges presented simply as cordial considerations on the part of both Martin and Travis. Hartigan's narrative instead unravels systematically, with only hints of information being conveyed in each successive scene until something resembling forward momentum is gathered.
Which isn't to imply these early moments lack purpose; rather, each scene is pregnant with inertia, each character drawn with palpable motivation otherwise not evidenced in their outward gestures. Through a simple series of conversations (between Martin and Travis in person, and Martin, his daughter, and his unresponsive son over the phone), the lives of these two men and their attendant familial concerns become omnipresent. As viewers, we're catching up to the film's plot even as it unfolds. These two men, seemingly so different, turn out to be at similar crossroads, a dynamic which Hartigan allows to take shape naturally, the two shading one another until a certain kismet evolves, encouraging and counting on one another to take their respective next steps forward in life. When Travis finally works up the courage to meet his daughter (Sam Buchanan) for the first time in years, he lies to Martin to gain his company at an arranged lunch between the three, and what transpires is an awkward, agitated, and ultimately very touching depiction of newly formed friendships and rekindled fatherhood.
Stylistically, Hartigan favors clean, modestly composed setups, with a penchant for subtly deployed panning shots adding to the aforementioned sense of anxiety in Martin and Travis's converging and corresponding activities. At its best, with its quiet, ominous pace in the early going and its economical distribution of information throughout, the film is reminiscent of Todd Haynes's Safe. And while, in the end, Hartigan may forgo building on such suggestive atmosphere, opting not to concern himself with psychological issues of a magnitude such as Haynes's deconstruction of the female psyche, he does offer an equally pleasing emotional payoff. Indeed, the film is structured on just such contrasts, between form and content, tone and exposition. Austere but not cold, serene yet never dull, moving without resorting to dramatic histrionics, This Is Martin Bonner is instead something altogether different: a generous portrait of genuine people attempting to live authentic lives. [Slant]