A grieving Hasidic cantor and an undistinguished science professor explore the world of death and decay in “To Dust.”
Likable but uneven, this seriocomedy opening Friday at The Vogue benefits from a uniquely quirky premise and winning protagonists. But it can’t overcome tonal problems and bumpy storytelling.
Director and co-writer Shawn Snyder (Jason Begue shares screenplay credit) mixes forensic science, orthodox faith, folkloric horror and poignant connection in this feature debut. Geza Rohrig and Matthew Broderick play the mismatched buddies.
Shmuel (Rohrig), a cantor at a Hasidic synagogue in Upstate New York, has lost his wife to cancer and worries obsessively that her soul is suffering as her body decays in the ground. While his mother and rabbi urge him to move forward, and his school-age sons (Leo Heller, Samuel Mori Voit) fear he’s swallowed a dybbuk, Shmuel ventures into the secular world to ask experts, “How does the body dismantle in the earth?”
His quest lands him in the classroom of Albert (Broderick), a community-college biology professor who develops sympathy for the grieving Shmuel. Albert shows Shmuel a textbook item on the decomposing body of a pig (pigs somewhat resemble humans biologically).
Desperate to understand his wife’s situation, Shmuel starts conducting his own pig experiments. Albert, despite some reservations, becomes his guide.
Burials, disinterring and a road trip to a “body farm” follow, as does a growing friendship.
Snyder presents a detailed picture of corpses and decay. While some may wince at the imagery, Snyder appears interested in truth, not shock.
Also impressive is the movie’s humanity, whether in the protagonists’ bumbling but meaningful buddy dynamics or when Shmuel sings to his sons.
Yet at the same time, the plot gets gimmicky, and some of what transpires defies credibility. A horrible act of animal cruelty isn’t amusing. Nor can one believe that the men would commit it.
Tonally, Snyder works in numerous shades — melancholy, clownish, macabre, surreal, sweet — but they don’t always coexist effectively. Sometimes the humor plays flatly.
Grotesque-looking animation featuring a decaying pig clashes with the down-to-earth tone of the surrounding scene.
Rohrig, who starred in the Hungarian Holocaust drama “Son of Saul,” displays a gift for comedy as well as his established skill at conveying obsession and suffering. The sight of the buffoonish Shmuel stealing wine from a wedding, getting drunk, and heading toward his wife’s grave is true tragicomedy.
Broderick, so effective at playing mediocre men who have shelved their dreams (“I accept my ceilings,” Albert says), shows some affecting decency as Albert. And he’s a hoot when calling Shmuel “Shmell.”
Two and a half stars
Starring: Geza Rohrig, Matthew Broderick, Leo Heller, Samuel Mori Voit
Written by: Shawn Snyder, Jason Begue
Directed by: Shawn Snyder
Running time: 1 hours, 32 minutes