To Dust, 2018.
Directed by Shawn Snyder
Starring Géza Röhrig, Matthew Broderick, Sammy Voit, and Leo Heller
Shmuel, a Hasidic cantor in Upstate New York, distraught by the untimely death of his wife, struggles to find religious solace, while secretly obsessing over how her body will decay. As a clandestine partnership develops with Albert, a local community college biology professor, the two embark on a darkly comic and increasingly literal undertaking into the underworld.
Everyone deals with loss in their own way, but I can’t say I’ve ever seen someone obsess over body deterioration from six feet under as part of an existential crisis where religion and science are pondered equally. Here’s where things get really bizarre; To Dust funnels all of these dark musings into something of a buddy comedy utilizing gallows humor and sharp dialogue to present this unorthodox manner of coping with death.
Géza Röhrig (who recently delivered a powerful performance in the Oscar-winning foreign language film Son of Saul) portrays a Hasidic Jewish man named Schmuel currently grieving over losing his wife to cancer. It’s heavy stuff that literally anyone and everyone would have a hard time coming to terms with, but he is also having recurring nightmares of his wife rotting in the ground coupled with some truly disturbing body horror visions (we see a toenail peel itself back before the toe itself bends back and explodes, blossoming like the most disgusting flower). According to his faith, there are also 200 something more body parts to go, so it’s sufficient to say that Schmuel would like to find closure as quickly as possible.
It’s hard to tell how personal a film this is to co-writer and director Shawn Snyder (it’s also worth noting that the shorts filmmaker is making his feature-length debut and has done a tremendous job), but the credits mention the loss of who I can only assume to be his late wife. And there should be no surprise if this is the case, as even though this is a film where a man of tested faith teams up with a local college professor (played by Matthew Broderick who has spot-on delivery with every sardonic retort, and winning chemistry serving as the comedic relief to the more downbeat Géza Röhrig) to gather their own research on decomposition by studying a buried pig (sorry PETA, but the death of said pig is a hilarious highlight and a moment not to be forgotten soon), their interactions contain witty dialogue that carry real-world heft, even if they tip the scales in favor of laughs.
To Dust is a black comedy through and through, boasting memorable sequences such as Schmuel visiting a coffin salesman to ask him some pretty morbid questions about, you guessed it, decomposition. However, the reason the interactions are as engaging and effective as they are is the layer of depressing reality underneath; these are questions I certainly never thought to ask myself, so watching a film about it has somewhat of a domino effect and will get viewers contemplating the same subject. It’s also fascinating to watch a film so heavily rooted in science that never feels like attending a community college class; the wacky, morally questionable experiments these two carry out are simultaneously tragic and humorous. And throughout every strange action (the film eventually reaches a farm in Tennessee made up of decomposing humans that chose to give their bodies away for scientific research), there’s the sensation of hoping it brings Schmuel the closure he will stop at nothing to obtain.
There is also a well-handled subplot regarding Schmuel’s children who face some bullying over the crazy antics of their father, that also become convinced that a spirit of sorts must be convincing him to do these things. Smartly, it never detracts from the main attraction and is also charming in its own right. The only issue with To Dust is that the film has a bad habit of employing humor that likes to make buffoons out of its characters (the performances wonderfully sell these bits although they still feel out of place), and for as intriguing as the film is it’s not necessarily majorly insightful. It will give most people a new perspective on death and the grieving process, but it’s not going to strike an emotionally resonant chord with audiences on the same wavelength as it probably did for its filmmaker Shawn Snyder.
Still, To Dust is a confident and assured debut film with sharp writing and direction (aesthetically, the film is equipped with a gloomy washed-out color palette that goes hand-in-hand with the subject material on display). In another entry of wildly strange sentences I never thought I would ever type in my life, but place the unlikely pairing of Geza Rohrig and Matthew Broderick as frontrunners for the best on-screen duo of 2019. It’s fantastic seeing the former receive more work, and a sight to behold witnessing the latter gives one of his best performances in decades (Matthew Broderick has not lost a step regarding comedic delivery, and one of the many things this film proves is that he deserves to be granted one more run in the spotlight). Seek out To Dust; I guarantee it’s a viewing experience you never knew you desired.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com