A strange and haunting work, To Dust is the feature debut from Shawn Snyder, a veteran sound mixer who has made many shorts over the years. His latest film begins as a story about Hasidic cantor Shmuel (Hungarian actor Géza Röhrig, who gave such a harrowing performance in 2015’s Son of Saul), almost inconsolable after his wife’s untimely death, leaving him in mourning with their two children not knowing how to help and their community wanting to help but unable to penetrate his sorrow. Shmuel attempts to use his faith as a means to make things better, but he becomes obsessed with the process and time it is taking his wife’s body to decompose. It may sound morbid, but according to his religion, the small bit of soul that is left in a dead body can’t fully be at peace until the body has fully returned to the earth.
In his efforts to learn more about the decaying of a human body, he forms an odd-couple-like bond with Albert (Matthew Broderick), a local community college biology professor, who is at first hesitant to put any details about rotting corpses into this poor man’s head. Eventually, he decides it may actually help Shmuel heal and move past the nightmarish visions he’s having about his wife’s form. Meanwhile, Shmuel’s children are certain that the ghost of their mother is haunting him, and they embark on their own journey to rid Shmuel of his pain.
As odd and morbid as To Dust may sound, there is something absolutely captivating about its subject matter and the performances. Röhrig absolutely vanishes into his role, and Broderick can’t help but be charming and empathetic, having spent most of his career doing just that. At about the two-thirds mark in the film, the pair even take a road trip to a location that I won’t spoil. Suffice it to say it’s completely freaky that telling the location might discourage you from seeing the movie at all, even thought it is the place where Shmuel receives his greatest piece of insight into the decomposition process.
At its core, the movie is about reaching beyond your most steadfast beliefs (in this case, religious) to find that one thing that helps you get through the toughest point in your life. Director/co-writer (with Jason Begue) Snyder has a talent for creating a visual space where Shmuel (and by extension, we) feel trapped at the bottom of his downward spiral. The moments between father and children are handled deftly and with maturity, while the buddy moments with Albert are both humorous and not without their own depth and emotional value. I realize that To Dust is a tough sell, and the final sequence where our heroes work together to complete Shmuel’s journey to healing might be more than some people can handle or accept. But I think the film is worth the moments of discomfort, and I always appreciate a film that keeps me guessing and takes me on a road I have never before been on.
The film opens today in Chicago at the AMC River East 21.
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