Part mismatched buddy-comedy and part earnest drama, Shawn Snyder’s debut film To Dust wrestles some elegant material from the corners of a thoroughly morbid idea. The morbid aspect comes as the entire film finds itself preoccupied with the details of body decomposition and a husband’s obsessive desire to understand this process as it relates to the recent death of his wife. That the man is a Hasidic Jew only complicates his intellectual search; his religion won’t allow scientific answers to such a spiritual question.
And that’s where the ‘comedy’ part comes into play. The husband, Shmuel (Geza Rohrig), seeks answers outside his hermetic society and stumbles into the life of local community college science professor Albert (Matthew Broderick). Pot smoking and consumed with Jethro Tull — which in and of itself lends some light touches from the opening juxtaposition of quotes that belies the film’s sly take on the heavy religious discussions about to ensue — Albert tries to guide Shmuel in the right direction of answers that will ease his grief, but only ends up compounding them.
From stealing and burying a pig to traveling across country visiting a “body farm” — yes, apparently these are real — To Dust spares no possible exploration in trying to assuage Shmuel’s tormented dreams of his wife’s soul suffering six feet under.
Also grappling with the idea of death are Shmuel’s two young boys (Leo Heller and Ziv Zaifman), whose confused notions of the afterlife lead them to believe their father’s depressed stupor is the evil work of a dybbuk.
Their actions, which include stealing a schoolmate’s confiscated VHS tape to perform a midnight exorcism on their father’s left toe, since that’s the supposed entry and exit point for such devilish spirits, become nuanced comedic substitutions for the typical naughty, pubescent curiosity that populates films. They steal the tape not because it promises a glimpse of sexuality, but because it supposedly shows a real life dybbuk. Like their father, the confines of their religious beliefs and its restrictive outlook on explaining simple earthly things cause far more confusion than clarity.
Ultimately, To Dust ventures to some remarkably hard-to-swallow places, but it maintains its balance of sharp humor and emotional poignancy mostly through the terrific performances of Rohrig and Broderick. Last seen in Laszlo Nemes’ harrowing Holocaust drama Son of Saul (2015), Rohrig’s shell-shocked eyes and mannered movement reveal the same sense of conflicted sadness he displayed in that film. He’s an actor who emotes through his body, which perfectly suits his performance as Shmuel, whose visage is obscured through locks of hair and a heavy black beard.
Likewise, Broderick brings a shaggy-dog generosity to his role as Albert. First seen teaching a class where he commonly mixes up words and then swears at his students because they correct him, it’s obvious he’s the last person who should be helping a man despondent over the metaphysically crushing calamities of life and death. But it works, each man learning and growing as their quest takes them to places neither expected.
There’s no shortage of films (independent ones especially) that deal with the Quixotic search for the displacement of grief. To Dust firmly squares itself into this genre and succeeds because its characters are smart and its philosophy about mental suffering feels authentic. Even if we don’t have the stomach to kill and bury a pig, the thought of trying to wrap our arms around a tangible tenet of death is often overpowering. The film’s biggest takeaway is that in today’s modern/scientific wonder age, the idea of faith or belief or whatever one calls it isn’t enough to satisfy the gaping hole left after we lose someone. As a widow (Isabelle Phillips) whose attempted set-up date with Shmuel tells him, “It never gets better. It’s different, but never better.” There are small pockets of wisdom buried throughout To Dust that make it a gem.
The film opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on March 1 at the Landmark Magnolia Theatre.