TO DUST- Review
While many “feel good” movies are exhaulted with ad lines exclaiming “a celebration of life”, this new “dramedy” might best be tagged as, well, not a celebration, but rather “an exploration of life…and death”. Yes, the “D-word” figures most prominently in this piece, but from a most unexpected angle. It concerns a man from a strict religious order, a Hasidic man, who finds no real comfort from his faith after death takes his beloved, and so he turns, not to drugs or booze, but to science. He cannot put his life back into order until he knows the length of time for flesh to turn TO DUST.
We meet the focus of the story, a cantor in Upstate New York named Shumel (Geza Rohrig) on probably the worst day of his life as his wife succumbs to cancer. As her body is quickly washed and prepared for near immediate burial, he’s so distraught that he cannot find the strength to “rend” his garments, even after his mother Faigy (Janet Sarno) provides him with scissors. Luckily she helps out at home, cooking and cleaning for her son and her two teenage grandsons, Naftali (Sammy Voit) and Noam (Leo Heller) as Shumel fails to get his “bearings”. Finally, he talks to his rabbi about the thoughts that haunt him. Is his wife’s soul trapped in her body until it erodes and returns to the Earth? And how long will that take? The rabbi’s reply offers him no peace. The days turn to weeks, as the church elders plead for his return. At school, other students taunt the boys about their sullen pappa, saying that he has “eaten ” a “dybbuk” (a restless malicious spirit). This prompts the lads to begin their own research (frowned upon) into this paranormal possessor. As a last resort, Shumel turns to science, via the local community college. There he visits burned-out, frazzled biology/chemistry teacher Albert (Matthew Broderick), who tries to send him on his way. Ah, but the cantor is persistent and returns to the classroom. Albert then shows him a book offering a photographic study of a deceased piglet as it degrades and rots. Ah, but a piglet’s not the size of a person. This leads to the purchase of a full-sized adult porker, and its clandestine burial deep in the woods. When this “experiment” provides few answers, Albert learns of a “body farm” in the Midwest where corpses are left outside to aid in forensic study. Thus begins a strange “road trip” for this truly “odd couple”.
This unique, sometimes whimsical tale is solidly anchored by the steady, solemn performance of Rohrig (last seen in the Oscar-winning SON OF SAUL). His haunted melancholy cantor could almost be considered part of the “walking dead”, for he’s decidedly the “walking wounded”. Shumel is certainly a man with a “bee in his bonnet”, who can’t seem to connect with life as he worries about his love’s afterlife. His quiet confusion is a great counter-balance to the frequently bombastic work of Broderick, whose Albert is a single (probably divorced at least once) bitter, frustrated and aggravated riff on his character from the iconic ELECTION (guessing his Tracy Flick has her eyes on the Oval Office). Albert seems to consider Shmuel as another in a long line of annoying irritants, but slowly his empathy is finally re-ignited, and he learns to care again. More importantly, we see that Albert’s curiosity has returned after a very lengthy sabbatical. Broderick shows us the clock is turned back, a death has invigorated his inner Ferris B. Also big kudos to Voit and Heller who bring a sense of urgency and affection to their roles as Shmuel’s confused, but supportive sons.
Director Shawn Snyder lets the story unfold at a natural, leisurely pace, allowing us to feel the hesitance of the characters and the awkward “vibe” of the uncomfortable situations and conversations. The film’s problems stem from the script (which he co-wrote with Jason Begue) which has Shmuel engaging in actions that are in direct opposition to his faith’s teachings (the many interactions with swine are the least of the offenses). Especially in the last scene which seems lifted from too many late, late show “grade Z” chillers. Thankfully a few reoccurring gags connect (Albert calls Shmuel rabbi, to which he repeatedly responds, almost in a whisper, “I am not rabbi”) and the Hassidic community is given some wry human foibles (the church elders really want Shmuel back as the cantor because his replacement has a grating voice). There’s a good use of archival footage of the piglet’s decay and clips of a 30’s Polish dybbuk film, but stop-motion animation of a swollen purple bursting to reveal a blooming flower is overused and feels pretentious. There’s a couple of interesting performance at the heart of this film, and it raises some engaging thoughts on life’s end, but in the last act TO DUST quickly crumbles and leaves our movie memories as if swept away by a very slight breeze.
2.5 Out of 5
TO DUST opens everywhere and screens in the St. Louis area at Landmark’s Plaza Frontenac Cinemas.