‘To Dust’ is not an old, tired story, but it is a strange one
Directed by: Shawn Snyder
Written by: Shawn Snyder and Jason Begue
Starring: Geza Rohrig and Matthew Broderick
“To Dust” – “I have questions.” – Shmuel (Geza Rohrig)
“This is all kinds of wrong.” – Albert (Matthew Broderick)
After watching Shawn Snyder’s strange indie “To Dust”, one might walk out of the theatre having questions and proclaiming that this movie is all kinds of wrong. Sure, the premise is bizarre and off-putting, but admittedly, it does cover ground about a never-talked about subject: a loved one’s body decomposing after the burial.
Shmuel morns the loss of his wife. She dies from cancer, and not only has her passing ripped a hole in Shmuel’s life, but he obsesses over her decaying corpse which lays under six feet of soil.
When will she find peace? When will she turn to dust and become one with the earth? How long will it take? Weeks? Months? Ew.
Surely, Shmuel’s boys Naftali (Sammy Voit) and Noam (Leo Heller) could use some earthly advice from their dad, but not until he finds peace too. With Shmuel finding no solace from religion, he turns to science and drives to New Hempstead Community College for answers. He arrives in a classroom unannounced and surprises Albert, an apathetic biology professor. After answering a few random questions about rotting corpses, Albert believes that Shmuel will go on his “merry” way, but the two – instead - become joined at the hip due to this particular widower’s relentless quest for emotional rest.
Shmuel and Albert somehow form an amusing odd couple under the most morbid of conditions, as the film attempts to create levity from despair, and mainly through Broderick’s gifted comedic timing. Many times, Albert pokes fun at Shmuel’s odd requests, but also at the man himself.
Even though Shmuel’s thoughts about his wife’s body might be his natural outlet in the grieving process, this abnormal fixation provides ripe material for outsider sarcasm, and his physical appearance becomes an unmeasured portion of the comedy equation. Shmuel is a Hasidic Jewish man, and in some recent movies like “Menashe” (2017) and “Disobedience” (2018), this religious community is self-contained within the narratives. Here, Shmuel’s travels around the semi-rural suburbs of New York draw comments and looks from those not familiar with a shtreimel or a payot, and Snyder and co-writer Jason Begue do not shy away from these awkward moments.
Meanwhile, Rohrig plays his character straighter than a hypotenuse during a geometry final exam, as Shmuel internalizes the subtle digs and stares, but he pushes forward – undeterred - to solve this after-death riddle. Frustration, despair, naivete, and sorrow are his most trusty emotions, and silence is his closest friend. He does, however, find – literally, in some cases – a partner in crime with Albert.
Broderick’s Albert might be channeling shades of high school teacher Jim McAllister from “Election” (1999), and in fact, both educators could be the same person. Hey, it’s 20 years removed from Mr. McAllister’s ouster from a Nebraska high school, and perhaps he changed his name, developed an active marijuana habit and lost his enthusiasm for teaching.
Well, this step into Albert’s and Shmuel’s on-screen realities will not make a whole lot of sense or feel like the right ingredients for a wildly appealing movie, but “To Dust” does offer a unique experience, especially if a movie-concoction of religious humor, rotting corpses and shady deeds is your jam.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.