This is Martin Bonner is a film that has slipped between the cracks of the feel-good optimism of Christian dramas and the harsh severity of Hollywood crime dramas. Are these the only two options? Of course they’re not; but in a movie that follows the interaction between a man working for a Christian prison ministry and a released prisoner on parole, those two options are some of the more likely.
Written and directed by Chad Hartigan, a former missionary kid who rejects religion in his adult life, This is Martin Bonner (2013) grants remarkable insight into ordinary existence. A professor once told me that the art of writing should “reduce the complex into the simple.” But the beauty of this film is that it does the opposite: it amplifies the complexity of the simple life.
Martin Bonner (Paul Eenhorn) worked as a church business manager in Maryland before he was fired for divorcing his wife, and is just now starting a job with a prison ministry in Reno, Nevada. He has two grown children; he speaks to his daughter on the phone every week, but his son never answers his calls or returns the loving messages that Martin regularly leaves. He’s a man who has been through the hardships of life, who quit his last job because of his increasing doubts and questions about his faith. His current volunteer position with a nonprofit — managing prisoners’ transitions into outside life — is his first job in two years.
Travis Holloway (Richmond Arquette ) has just finished a 12 year sentence and is going through Martin’s program, but he can’t connect with his sponsor, Steve Helm (Robert Longstreet). Instead, Travis latches on to Martin; they’re both estranged fathers, both struggling to come to terms with their new lives.
Martin recently went through a crisis of faith; though he holds on to his faith, he is unsure and wrestling with doubt. This draws Travis in to real discussions about God and belief because he feels at ease with Martin, whereas Steve and his wife Angela (Jan Haley) talk about visions from God and an unwavering steadfast faith. They’re the quintessential Ned Flanders type of Christian – sure of their belief, acting with love towards their neighbours, and aren’t even self righteous about it.
But that type of Christian can often make others, especially those interested in Christianity, feel inadequate. Travis can’t open up to Steve and Angela. He was cowed by the fervour of their certainty, but is drawn in to Martin’s quiet, doubt-riddled confidence in how he lives his life. He discloses to Martin over coffee, speaking about his faith in God: “I feel like it should mean everything or nothing.” But he can’t make up his mind.
The cinematography of the film is as nuanced and restrained as the characters are, giving just enough of the Reno desert landscape and decaying urban landscape (no flashing lights or Casinos here) to complement the characters. There isn’t much action, nor is this a glacially paced cerebral art house film. It is a character drama that takes time to invest in creating characters who act and speak like real people, and allows the audience a glimpse into their lives, a glimpse I’m forever thankful for.
Steeped in hope and kindness, This is Martin Bonner is a testament to, in Martin Bonner’s words, “making the Invisible Kingdom visible.” But it never alienates its audience or speaks down to them. Neither triumphant or defeatist, it simply unravels a path through a labyrinth of human emotions and life choices.