Movie Review - To Dust

When this film begins, I was reminded of the recent Martyr (2018) by Mazen Khaled. The third act of that film involves what Muslims do with a dead body immediately after the person has passed. The opening to this film involves what Hasidic Jews do with a dead body immediately after the person has passed. Seeing it made me think of how much Muslims and Jews have in common because the process or ritual of washing the body and enshrouding it in white is the same for both Muslims and Jews. This film though isn't about bridging gaps between Muslims and Jews. It could perhaps be about bridging gaps between Jews and people more rooted in science. It does so with some dry comedic sensibility. However, I'm not sure what director and co-writer Shawn Snyder's point is by bridging that religious and scientific gap in this case. I'm not sure unless he's not trying to bridge the gap but instead satirize this idea from Ecclesiastes, which Snyder quotes.

Snyder opens the film with this written phrase, "Then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return unto God who gave it." He quotes Kohelet 12:7. Immediately after though, he quotes Jethro Tull by saying, "God is an overwhelming responsibility." It's probably with an ironic tone that Snyder is making this film. He does clearly have a sense of humor about all this, but it's questionable if he's actually satirizing this whole thing or not. The central dilemma would seem to be what happens to a person's soul after they die. The protagonist here suggests that a soul can be trapped or tied to a body until it turns to dust. He wonders how long that takes and if the soul can't be free until it does.

Géza Röhrig (Son of Saul) stars as Shmuel, a Hasidic Jew. It's not clear what he does for work, but he has a family. However, the start of this film is the burial of his wife who has just died from cancer. He is now left to raise his two sons with the help of his widowed mother. However, Shmuel is having trouble moving on with his life. He's stuck in grief and mourning. He is particularly haunted by dreams of his wife's decaying body in the ground. He then believes that his wife's soul is trapped or somehow tied to that decaying body and isn't spiritually free.

His mother and his rabbi both try to tell him to move on, giving him wise or sage words. Yet, he won't listen. He instead becomes obsessed with wanting to know how long it will take for his wife's body to turn to dust or fully decompose. If one is wondering why Shmuel doesn't just use the Internet to find out how long a human body takes to decay, the answer is that Snyder's film seems to be taking place in the past. There is no title or direct indication of what the time period is, but by the look of the car that Shmuel drives or the style of the phones, one could guess that he might be living in the 1980's or so. Therefore, Shmuel can't just Google the answer.

Matthew Broderick (The Producers and Ferris Bueller's Day Off) co-stars as Albert, a science teacher at a community college. He seems like he's a bit of a sad sack. He doesn't appear to be married or have any children. If so, he's probably divorced and separated from his kids. He currently lives alone and spends his nights smoking marijuana in a pink frilly robe. When Shmuel approaches him and starts asking him questions, Albert doesn't seem interested. Due to his lonely life or frustrations at his school, which probably isn't yielding him satisfying or engaging students, he ends up going along with whatever Shmuel wants.

There is a bit of a contrivance that goes along with this film. Since there's no Internet, Albert has to take Shmuel to a library. He looks through one book about forensic taphonomy before giving up. The book is a skinny thing, less than 50 pages it seems. Taphonomy is the study of decay and fossilization, which is a part of paleontology and archeology. Paleontology and Archeology are huge fields of study. The fact that Albert wouldn't pull more books that are thicker and more detailed or the fact that he wouldn't try to contact a paleontologist or an archeologist makes this whole thing feel disingenuous.

One scene has Albert and Schmuel drive to Knoxville, Tennessee, presumably from New York in order to talk to a taphonomist and visit what's called a "body farm." The scene makes for a comical diversion, but it's more disingenuous because with all the universities in and near New York, as well as other organizations, it seems ridiculous that New York wouldn't have a paleontologist or archeologist that could have answered Schmuel's question. The film feels like it's intentionally being stupid or myopic in order to proffer the premise that Schmuel will go to extreme lengths just to answer this one question about human decay.

Rated R for language and disturbing images, including animal decomposition.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 32 mins.

Available on DVD.


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