Jason Arment reviews the film To Dust. While the movie is macabre, it explores so much more than that.
When I went to see To Dust at Sie FilmCenter, I didn’t know what to expect. I hadn’t read, watched, or heard anything about it except for a long, drawn-out movie review that was so boring the only take away was that the film was macabre. Which it is, but it’s also an exploration of grief, loss, religion, science, and friendship.
Throughout the film, there are meta references and homages to media paralleling To Dust’s own tropes. The Hardy Boys make an appearance, and for those unfamiliar it’s a story about two boys who become a boy scout version of Scooby-Doo after one of them loses their girlfriend in an explosion. The two young men deal with grief by spiraling out of control, going rogue, and returning to the boundaries of normal life.
To Dust pays homage to Taxi Driver by having the two main characters exchange lines from the movie when Travis Bickle talks to his friend and fellow cabbie called The Wizard. Travis infamously says, “I’ve got some bad ideas in my head,” after his friend asked, “Life got you down?” to which Travis responded, “Yeah, got me real down.” This exact exchange happens when the two main characters in To Dust first meet in the film. There are other such instances of the film paying respects, much like its characters pay respects to the dead throughout in their own strange way. What really makes the movie dynamic, though, are Shmuel (played by Géza Röhrig) and Albert (Matthew Broderick).
The two main characters are both men of faith: Shmuel is a Hasidic cantor, and Albert teaches science at a community college. Shmuel, a man used to slipping in and out of hallowed places, visits Albert for assistance after he is turned away by his own religion. Shmuel seeks science because the knowledge he obsesses over is taboo, forbidden. Science is something that scorns superstition and seeks to illuminate and, after a little convincing, so does Albert. But it’s not through words he is convinced, it’s through Shmuel’s pursuit for knowledge, his willingness to break his religion’s rules, and his passion for what he’s lost.
To Dust will strike a chord with anyone who has stepped beyond the pale of their station in life to seek that which is at once both taboo and transcendent.
Both men are acolytes of their respective faiths. They both understand and participate in the hierarchy of said systems, and navigate their strata to always find gatekeepers who tell them no. And in each instance, they circumvent, they break the rules, because they must know. What are they after, exactly? One must understand that To Dust is a film about the macabre the same way Taxi Driver is a film about taxis.
“Who are you, Shmuel!?” Albert yells rhetorically. It’s a telling question that points plainly to one of the movie’s central tropes: what a person becomes after loss. “Is this all science has to offer?” Shmuel screams at Albert after they stare into Petri dishes in a science lab, looking like two men trying to divine the truth from chicken bones.
“You are both scientists and you deserve respect!” Shmuel rages after Albert is disrespected by a colleague. But neither of these men are much respected as leaders, and even with this macabre adventure they’re still following paths that have been paved by others.
In the end, both men find what they’re looking for. Albert is validated as a scientist who can exist outside of a classroom, and Shmuel is satisfied with what he’s learned. To Dust will strike a chord with anyone who has stepped beyond the pale of their station in life to seek that which is at once both taboo and transcendent.