September 21, 2009 / Filmwell
Excerpts from Roger Ebert’s Journal, September 20, 2009 Every year good films show at the …
December 23, 2013
Many images and scenes in This is Martin Bonner are about either vision or payment. Or both: investment.
Chad Hartigan’s film begins with a long shot of a prison; partly obstructing the view of Nevada’s mountainous landscape is a watchtower, an image that establishes what might be considered essential to the film’s visual theme: fortified vision. Watchtowers provide guards a position of elevated vision from which they watch over the prisoners, especially ensuring the prevention of escape. However, there are those workers whose watchful care over the prisoners involves facilitating their adjustment upon release. The image of the prison transitions to a close-up of Martin Bonner, one such worker, sighing. The third shot, behind Martin, reveals that he is talking with an inmate; the point of view is just distant enough from the table at which they sit to emphasize the presence of three large windows allowing in light from the outside world. Because the inmate is 18 months away from freedom, Martin is meeting with him to offer assistance from his church-affiliated non-profit organization. “The program works in three phases,” Martin explains. “The first phase is to develop personal thought processes and moral filters. The second phase–and this is important–tests those moral filters in real-life situations.”
Martin then explains that these “real-life situations” involve off-site paid work. The minimum wage is put into a savings account to be made available when the inmate reenters society, the third stage of the program. Martin’s mention of the bank account opportunity is the first allusion to investment which, in addition to vision, is the film’s other significant concern. It’s not much of a stretch to see how investment might be related to good vision. To fortify is also to encourage, or to give moral, emotional, or mental strength. It’s Martin’s work to fortify the inmate’s prospects of adjusting well to freedom; to invest in someone is to cast a hopeful vision for her future benefit. Investment of this sort is the personal commitment to making another person’s unclear future more perceptible–like supplying glasses she can’t afford.
More to the point, then: good investors have good vision.
Upon learning that the spiritual components of the program are based on the teachings of Jesus, the inmate proclaims that he doesn’t believe. Martin answers “you don’t have to” with a knowing, almost defeated assurance. The next shot is of Martin walking to his car on the other side of a chain-link fence, depicted almost as if he is behind bars. Martin gets into his car and we hear a woman’s voice over addressing Martin in the impending scene at the eye-doctor’s: “Are you having trouble with your vision?”
The line is a punctuation mark on what these introductory images and conversations have carefully established. This will not be a cliche mentor-prisoner relationship; we’re first and foremost dealing with human beings who are, as such, on the same plane.
Martin’s first meeting with Travis Holloway, a prisoner in the program Martin volunteers for, is revealing. After a failed attempt to get money from the bank because it’s closed, Martin takes Travis to a diner and offers to pay for breakfast. Travis declines because he already ate. The purpose of the nonprofit organization is to help prisoners make the transition into freedom. The premise sounds like a setup for a one-sided, do-good story we’ve seen before, but during their conversation at the diner, we discover that Martin is in the midst of his own difficult transition: he’s recently moved to Reno after divorcing his wife of over twenty years. Later in the film, we learn that Martin has not only lost his marriage, but he’s also been ostracized from the church community he’d known. Martin’s new job is his first in two years and he’s recently declared bankruptcy.
That’s the understated brilliance of this film’s premise: a bankrupt man trying to invest in another man reentering the world with nothing.
At first glance, it seems like a scenario in which the blind lead the blind. But sometimes our pain, suffering, and emptiness become an opportunity to meet others in that place of lowliness. Often, it’s only then that we can see well, and we come to find that investing in other people takes the shape of mutual benefit. In a way, the film’s defining shot–perhaps its most memorable–is when Travis steps out of his hotel room for a moment after taking a shower, and the viewer is then taken on a 360 degree shot of Travis’s surroundings as if it’s his perspective. We pause with Travis for a moment to take it all in, and in so doing we’re invited to stand with him in the realization that he is free to go and do what he’d like, but that this is something of a daunting possibility for a man just released from twelve years in prison.
And therefore the shot is even more than an emphasis on Travis’s situation; it’s also an invitation to see Travis–the twelve year prisoner with nothing–as a human being worthy of our attention. In the following scene, Travis goes to church with his program sponsor, Steve Helms. Fittingly, the sermon is a “gospel lesson” about the man who “couldn’t tell the difference between people and trees.” Jesus spits on the man’s eyes and lays his hands on him; he opens his eyes and he can see others, but they’re blurry and “look like trees walking around.” Jesus then repeats the process and the man can see clearly. At first, the blind man’s vision was only partially restored. The point is that we can see and yet simultaneously fail to see well. The preacher follows up the explanation of the passage with a question for the congregation: “How many of us still see people as things” and not “persons of infinite worth?”
Keegan Dewitt’s marvelous soundtrack seems most remarkable when it overtakes a simple scene like the one following this sermon, accompanying the camera’s careful attention on Travis as he is shown embracing the reverend outside the church with a handshake, eye-to-eye contact, and a subtle smile. For a brief moment, in the smallest way, he is being treated like a person. And Hartigan turns up the music as if it’s a glorious intimacy that he wants us to carefully notice. The music continues briefly as the scene transitions from a closeup of Travis’s expressive response at feeling welcomed to a shot from behind Martin as he gives careful attention to a work of art in a museum.
The scene transitions in This is Martin Bonner are smooth, as if reinforcing what the film’s tw0 protagonists are hoping for–as if a grace is being offered to insure their transition.
This is Martin Bonner has a note of longing to its soundtrack and narrative situation that’s at once heartbreaking, sympathetic, and hopeful. This complicated note resounds most clearly in these ways when Travis has dinner with his sponsor, Steve Helms, and Steve’s wife, Angela. When asked why they came to Nevada, Steve responds that God lead them there, and proceeds to tell the couple’s story, one that involves prayer, spiritual maturation, and a strange dream that was the impetus for Steve’s initial conversion.
“That must have been some dream,” Travis replies without a hint of sarcasm or disbelief. Hartigan holds the camera’s gaze on Travis, whose expression, instead, seems to be one of longing for that sort of intimacy. Dewitt’s soundtrack quietly enters and the shot transitions to Travis on the couch with Steve and his wife embracing in the background. Travis notices their intimacy, and in one scene, Hartigan has managed to present two genuine perspectives on faith without the least bit of condescension. This is Steve. This is Angela. This is Travis. And there’s not the least bit of disdain for any of them during their dinner conversation.
The scenes following this dinner again pair Martin and Travis together as outsiders to Steve’s and Angela’s experience of the world. Their present experience is not as much one of familiarity or intimacy. Martin is shown speed dating and this is followed directly by shots of Travis wandering around town in a disoriented manner. He is confronted by a prostitute looking to “get warm” for a small charge. Travis finds temporary but fleeting relief in the investment.
Their scenes of struggling for intimacy lead into a scene featuring a coffee conversation between Martin and Travis. Martin asks Travis why he wanted to meet with him instead of Steve–to which Travis replies that he believes in God but feels like a fraud around him.
“God?” Martin assumes.
“No, Steve,” Travis corrects.
But Martin’s assumption is an early confirmation in the conversation that he understands Travis’s situation well.
Travis asks Martin if he’s a Christian and Martin chuckles: “Well I’ve got a degree in theology and I worked for the church for many, many years . . . but that doesn’t mean anything.”
In one of the film’s most significant bits, 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 does know (“I’m in a similar place myself”). And in part, I think this film is successful to the extent that it taps into a cultural milieu in which we too know the struggle well.
Confession (and therefore intimacy, too) ensues when Travis says that he was in prison for involuntary manslaughter, and Martin shares that he woke up one morning not wanting to go to church and tired of sacrificing his life for God. He woke up selfish and “it hasn’t gone away.”
The conversation ends with a telling line from Martin about his occupation: “This is pretty much all I’m qualified to do.” Perhaps his acutely felt spiritual bankruptcy has qualified him to have this very conversation with Travis.
The film’s culminating–and most remarkable–scene is when Travis meets his daughter who he hasn’t seen in years. Travis lied to Martin, telling him that his daughter would like to meet him too, when in fact, she didn’t know of Martin, and Travis was afraid of meeting with her by himself. This becomes immediately evident to Martin who, irked by the betrayal of trust, leaves the father and daughter alone in the restaurant and walks out to his car to leave. Travis chases after him, begging him to stay.
“I’ve got no business being here,” Martin replies, and gives Travis money for the meal.
The awkward ensuing scene between the father and daughter is one that deserves to be seen afresh for the first time, so I won’t belabor describing it. Suffice it to say that the years that Travis has lost with his daughter manifest themselves during the scene as the loss of intimacy accrued due to his inability to be invested in her life. The gap between the little girl that he knew and the grown woman who she is now seems insurmountable–a debt that can’t be reduced or paid for.
Just when the conversation–and the relationship–appears to be finally dead, Martin returns, ready to invest in Travis and his daughter in a way that’s not reducible to covering the bill. These two forms of investment eventually intertwine when Martin allows Travis to “cover the bill” (with Martin’s money). The two flash one another a knowing smile; Martin has given up his worth and recognition and applied it to Travis.
In that moment, Martin is, in practice, behaving Christianly. By making himself available to Travis and countless others–even in spite of his own legitimate doubts and selfish feelings, Martin is investing himself in the lives of others.
In an exit interview, Travis comments that the mentoring process has made him a better person because it’s shown him what a better person looks like. In what strikes me as a callback to a church message earlier in the film, Martin and the others have made the invisible kingdom visible. This visibility works in such a way that constitutes a functional answer to the problem of waking up and selfishly not wanting to go to church, or having doubts about whether or not we can hear from God, or wondering whether or not we have become irrevocably worthless because of our sins. I’m not sure if Hartigan meant for it, but there’s an underlying suggestion or implication in this film that we can’t ponder the possibility of intimacy with God and others from a place of uninvested isolation. It’s a long-held truth within the church that God’s presence isn’t especially felt until we become invested participants in that presence.
Following his time with Travis, Martin is shown calling his son to thank him for a painting he sent as a gift. Martin tells his son that he loves him.
The film ends with a shot of Martin sitting in the optometrist’s office, trying on a newly prescribed pair of glasses. You get the sense that not only have we been invited to come to know Martin over the course of the film as if involved in conversation with him, but that Martin now sees himself and his situation a little more clearly.