“To Dust” wastes no time declaring a devotion to incongruity. Shawn Snyder’s film begins with a pair of epigraphs: one from the Old Testament (as in the Bible), and one from Jethro Tull (as in the rock band).
The film’s premise is so simple as to be absurd. Shmuel (Géza Röhrig) is a Hasidic cantor. His wife has died. Now that she’s been buried, he wants to learn the particulars of what’s happening to her body. He needs to find out at what point “to dust” ceases to be metaphorical. Shmuel enlists a schlubby community college biology professor, Albert (Matthew Broderick), to help him. Various mishaps ensue. Several involve a pig (speaking of incongruity). The pig’s named Harold.
There’s a road trip? Of course there’s a road trip. This is a buddy movie, of sorts. There’s a sassy, middle-aged black woman encountered on the road trip? Of course there is. Does she provide both comic relief and wise counsel? To ask the question is to answer it.
A subplot, having to do with Shmuel’s two sons fearing their father has become a dybbuk, aims to be an interesting distraction without achieving the interesting part.
“To Dust” is a comedy, also of sorts, even if the morbid MacGuffin and Shmuel’s dour grief would make it seem anything but comic. For a while, off-kilteredness keeps things intriguing. Snyder, making his feature directing debut, employs an exacting deadpan that further complicates responses. He wrote the script with Jason Begue. That deadpan deepens the film’s defining incongruity. When Albert tells Shmuel that rigor mortis is “you know, arthritis for dead people,” that’s pretty funny — but are viewers supposed to laugh? They definitely are when Albert consistently mispronounces Shmuel’s name, keeps calling him “rabbi,” and makes a pun on “acidic” and “Hasidic.” But they may not want to.
“To Dust” has several things to recommend it. It’s decidedly different, and that is no small accomplishment in this day and age. Snyder’s direction has real assurance, though not enough to overcome the films self-conscious — maybe self-congratulatory — weirdness. Röhrig (“Son of Saul,” 2015) is very impressive, making all too real the sense of a man poised between impassivity and turmoil, curiosity and bewilderment. Plump and bearded, Broderick’s Albert displays a different sort of curiosity (after all, he’s “an academician,” as he announces several times) and different sort of bewilderment.
Bewilderment is even more of a problem for viewers. Shmuel lives in a modern house. He drives. He drops an f-bomb or two (something else that’s played for strained laughs). He isn’t inhabiting a vacuum. So once Albert shows him a video demonstrating the process of decomposition in a pig (not Harold) he should have his answer. But then there’d be no movie. And why Albert (or “All-bert,” as Shmuel calls him) keeps putting up with him is even more of a mystery. With “To Dust,” motivation is an even greater puzzlement than decomposition.
Directed by Shawn Snyder. Written by Jason Begue and Snyder. Starring Géza Röhrig and Matthew Broderick. At Coolidge Corner. 92 minutes.
R (language and some disturbing images of decomposition and implied animal cruelty)
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.