Death, particularly that of a loved one, is one of the most mentally, emotionally, and even physically difficult events anyone can go through. It’s an absolutely draining experience that can devastate even the most resolute and strong-willed souls. There’s no easy way to cope; some people never do. It could take weeks, months, or even years for someone to recover from the loss of a grandparent, parent, spouse or, God forbid, a child. So naturally, a wife’s passing is a ripe subject for absurdist black comedy, which To Dust exemplifies with hilarious aplomb.
The film stars Géza Röhrig (of Son of Saul fame, though in a much, much different role) as Shmuel, a Hasidic Jew suffering through the untimely passing of his wife. Depressed by this tragic event, Shmuel is haunted by nightmares of his wife’s decomposing corpse along with the fear that the portion of her soul that remains in her earthly body is in torment. Looking for answers as to what is going on, he winds up in the classroom of Albert (Matthew Broderick), a biology teacher at a community college. Initially taken aback by Shmuel’s questions, Albert eventually teaches, experiments with, and develops a friendship with Shmuel over the subject of bodily decomposition.
It may not sound like it based on that description, but To Dust is hands down one of the funniest films of the year. If there was any question, the opening scene involves Shmuel’s repeated failed attempts to rip his coat after receiving the news of his wife’s passing — a Jewish tradition that winds up with him requiring medical scissors to finish the task. His meeting with Albert similarly escalates into absurdity. Because the text on decomposition from the community college library uses a dead pig as its study subject, Albert suggests offhandedly that in order to understand the timeline of bodily breakdown, due to the myriad factors that can affect it, they would also need a dead pig… which leads Shmuel down a path of sins including multiple porcine burial incidents, breaking into a “body farm,” and grave robbery.
To Dust’s most obvious attractions might be its humor and wit – which it shows off in spades – but there’s also a real sweetness and sincerity to the proceedings that help balance the film. While many of the film’s jokes revolve around the absurd situations that Shmuel, a very devout Hasidic Jew, finds himself in, writers Jason Begue and Shawn Snyder never stoop to making him or his faith the butt of the joke. In fact, Snyder – who also directed the film – and Röhrig make sure that Shmuel’s internal struggle is portrayed with the utmost seriousness. His eyes, much like throughout Son of Saul, express an unknowable pain throughout most of the film. Shmuel’s cries of “I’m sinning!” throughout the film aren’t a punchline. They’re genuine pleas from a distraught man trying his best to stay above water spiritually and emotionally.
Albert’s lack of faith, loneliness, disappointment in his status in life, and affection for Shmuel are all portrayed just as earnestly. There’s no rational reason for a man to wander off into the wilderness with a stranger to see a dead pig buried six feet under. But, Albert does it anyway on multiple occasions. His journey is less explicitly laid out that Shmuel’s, but Broderick and Begue/Snyder give him enough little moments that flesh out his character and demonstrate how his isolation has lead him to break into a body farm. On its face, the film appears to present Albert as the “straight man” of the pairing, but if anything his behavior is even more absurd than Shmuel’s – at least Shmuel has the excuse of grief motivating his behavior. Albert’s just a weirdo.
Röhrig and Broderick are pitch perfect together as the oddball comic pairing, with Röhrig’s more serious, verklempt, and often stoic nature making for a magical pairing for Broderick’s constantly put-upon disposition and occasional snarkiness. What makes the offbeat comedy of To Dust work so well is having a vet of the form like Broderick handle the more overt. “big laugh” moments while letting Röhrig, in only his second film, handle the more subtle acting bits. Broderick gets to bring the house down with jokes, but it’s Röhrig – his face almost completely covered by his long beard and extensive payots – that anchors the film’s dramatic arc… while also chasing a pig around an apartment with the intention of murdering it.
The film also benefits from Snyder’s strong direction, something that’s often ignored in comedies. Shmuel’s nightmares are visually horrifying; a nightmare involving a toe being turned into a flower has been burned into my mind, possibly forever. Scenes showing the decay of a pig over time during Albert’s first lesson are shot in a magnificently put together combination of time-lapse, practical effects, and a textural look that is somehow both hyper-realistic and disgustingly surreal. Snyder somehow manages to make a scene featuring a field of corpses a warm and fuzzy moment, a herculean achievement that could only have been done by a real-deal talented filmmaker.
But again, the most important thing to note about To Dust is how absolutely side-splittingly hilarious it is. There’s never a dull moment in the film. From start to finish the drama is engaging, but it’s never without laughs. Sometimes we deal with grief in weird ways. If there’s one thing Shmuel teaches us in To Dust it’s that we find peace in weird, unconventional places. It’s fitting that we can all have a laugh at his bizarre adventures through trauma and depression.