Movie Review by James Lindorf
Kohelet 12:7 And the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God, Who gave it. This one verse from the Hebrew Bible is enough to torment Shmuel (Géza Röhrig), a Hasidic cantor in Upstate New York, who is distraught by the untimely death of his wife, Rivkah. He is convinced that her soul is still trapped, suffering as her body did in its battle against cancer. As he struggles to find solace in his religion, Shmuel risks blasphemy, discovery, and expulsion from his community by searching for answers in science. With the help of the reluctant, but curious, community college biology professor Albert (Matthew Broderick), Shmuel may finally find the comfort he seeks. To Dust is the feature film debut of Director Shawn Snyder who also co-wrote the film with Jason Begue (Americano). To Dust will open in theaters February 8th, 2019.
As Shmuel tries to embrace and understand the science of decay, the film offers viewers a slim chance to experience Hasidic Judaism. Insight into the religion’s rituals and traditions are at their peak in the movie’s opening moments, as we see Rivkah’s body being lovingly prepared for burial. It would have been great to see more of this world and gain further understanding of all the rules and restrictions that Shmuel was breaking to learn what was happening to his wife. Why is science bad, why does he have such a hard time talking to women, what is going on with his big toe?
Overall, the acting in the film is well done. Géza gets to play a helpless character whose emotions are always at 11 and is fraying at all of his edges. His wife is gone, his religion isn’t comforting him, he has to risk everything by turning to strangers, and he is having trouble connecting with his two children. Some of his actions can be a bit over the top but the smaller moments are where he shines. Matthew Broderick’s Albert gets to act as the counterbalance to Shmuel’s darkness by eliciting a few laughs with his bumbling nature. It isn’t a Broderick performance for the ages, but he is fine, and his charisma helps lift the film.
The only side character that will leave any lasting memory is feisty security guard Stella, played by Natalie Carter (Orange Is the New Black). There was a small subplot involving Shmuel’s kids that should have been excised entirely, or their roles should have been beefed up. They are not given enough to do and what they have to do isn’t well explained. I believe they were left in the film for two scenes: one, a conflict between the two boys and their father at the lake over how he thinks they should be grieving, the other that same day which shows another side to their relationship.
To Dust is a well-paced, entertaining film that has just enough light-hearted moments to avoid crushing itself under the heavy subject matter. It could be the best or worst thing to show to someone who is currently grieving. If they have some of the same questions as Shmuel, it could be interesting and comforting. If they do not care to think about what is happening 6 ft. under, the imagery and ideas in the film could be traumatizing. Snyder used his limited budget well in his wryly funny religion-meets-science debut film.