To Dust – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

It’s not every day that you can see a movie entirely about death without one drop of blood spilled. In fact, To Dust offers something else you’d never expect in a drama that examines a Hasidic Jew’s slow acceptance of his young wife’s death after intensely studying physical decomposition of dying bodies – humor, of the laugh-out-loud variety.

To Dust. Photo copyright 2018 Good Deed Entertainment.

We have screenwriters Shawn Snyder (who also directed the film) and Jason Begue to thank for that, as well as actor Matthew Broderick, who fully delivers the comedic goods as Albert, a burned-out community college biology professor. Albert and Shmuel (Geza Rohrig) are from two entirely different cultures and of two vastly dissimilar mindsets. The only thing they have in common is currently a lack of purpose.

Wife’s Death from Cancer

Shmuel is too distraught over his wife’s death from cancer to focus on his cantorial work at the local synagogue or to properly father his two young sons. After enduring horrible nightmares in which he sees parts of her body decaying, Shmuel becomes obsessed with learning how bodies actually decompose, as he’s convinced that her soul is suffering until her body returns to dust. That’s when he seeks help from a contentious coffin salesman and then Albert, whom Shmuel inaccurately presumes to be an expert on the subject.

Lonely and unhappy with his job, Albert at first dismisses Shmuel as a husband driven mad by grief, which, of course, he is. But there’s something about his quest for scientific knowledge that intrigues Albert as opposed to the bored, disinterested students he teaches five days a week. So they form a reluctant bond that begins with book research and progresses to absurd “clinical trials” and “field experiments” that become more gruesome (and illegal) each time.    

Humor Keeps Things Light

Although the dream sequences and experiments can be quite disturbing, the humor throughout the film keeps things from getting too heavy or depressing. Shmuel repeatedly calls Albert a scientist, and Albert frequently refers to Shmuel as a rabbi. Neither is correct, and it shows how little they understand the world of the other. In addition, Shmuel’s two sons are convinced their mother’s ghost has entered their father’s body and is directing his increasingly odd behavior. Their obsession about exorcizing the “dybbuk” (ghost) from their father parallels Shmuel’s single-mindedness about the decomposition of his wife’s body.    

The macabre theme of this film (and its focus on Hasidic Judaism) likely will prevent it from appealing to a mass audience, and something this dark almost needs to be accompanied by a Trigger Alert. Nonetheless this is a well-made film with a clever script and delightful acting that promises to be unlike anything you’ve seen before at the cinema.

To Dust

A Hasidic cantor mourns his young wife’s death by obsessing over the details of her body’s decay.

  • Stars: Geza Rohrig, Matthew Broderick, Sammy Voit, Leo Heller, Janet Sarno
  • Director: Shawn Snyder
  • Writers: Shawn Snyder and Jason Begue
  • Genre: Dramatic Comedy
  • Run Time: 92 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for language and some disturbing images)
  • Additional Information: The director, Shawn Snyder is from South Florida, and this film opens the 2019 Boca Raton Jewish Film Festival on March 10th with the filmmaker in attendance. To Dust screens in select theaters across Florida beginning March 15th.

Leslie C. Halpern is the author of Scantily Clad Truths: Essays on Life with Clothes (and without) and 200 Love Lessons from the Movies.

Miss You Already – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Set in London, this drama features two long-time best friends struggling with opposite ends of the spectrum. In her late 30s, Milly (Toni Collette) deals with her mortality when she develops an aggressive case of breast cancer, and Jess (Drew Barrymore) fears she may never be able to get pregnant and bring new life into the world.

Narrated through Jess’s flashback, the girls first meet in elementary school when her American family moves to England. They bond instantly and share secrets, first kisses, and many other experiences together. Milly, the wilder of the two, is a slave to trending fashion and her well-groomed appearance, and accidentally gets pregnant by a rocker (Dominic Cooper), who gives up his excesses to marry her and provide a stable life for her and their children.

Copyright 2015 Roadside Attractions

Toni Collette and Drew Barrymore star in Miss You Already.

A Solid Friendship

Working in the public relations field, Milly remains a superficial party girl, balanced by Jess’s rather humdrum lifestyle of sharing a modest houseboat with her boyfriend (Paddy Considine), an oil rig worker. While the basis of their friendship may be hard to fathom – the women, their men, and their lifestyles differ completely – the friendship remains solid.

When Milly learns she has breast cancer, she seems more concerned about losing her hair from the treatments than possibly losing her life from the illness. Later, when her doctor says she needs a double mastectomy, Milly’s concern again seems more focused on losing her sex appeal than her general health. While a sympathetic character because of what she endures, she’s definitely flawed and the disease brings out the worst, and eventually, the best in her.

Loyalty Has Its Limits

Jess stays loyal to her friend, holding her hand during cancer treatments and emptying bowls of vomit. Milly’s husband also proves himself to be protective and loving – even when Milly is difficult to love because of her angry episodes. Loyalty has its limits, however, and those are tested when events turn even uglier (one of the movie’s secrets not revealed by the title or trailer).

Collette provides an amazing performance of a woman who slowly loses all that’s important to her. Brash, brittle, and believable, the actress transforms herself repeatedly in the role – from glamorous wild child to dying cancer patient. Barrymore supports her thoroughly as the strong, loving friend who foregoes diplomacy for honesty in most circumstances.

Though the film certainly has the potential to turn weepy and melodramatic, director Catherine Hardwicke encourages the humor and humanity in every situation. While viewers may not escape the theater without shedding a few tears, one tissue likely will suffice.

Miss You Already

  • Two women, who have been friends since childhood, face their medical challenges together.
  • Stars: Drew Barrymore, Toni Collette, Dominic Cooper, Paddy Considine, Jacqueline Bisset, Tyson Ritter
  • Director: Catherine Hardwicke
  • Writer: Morwenna Banks
  • Genre: Drama
  • Run Time: 112 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic content, sexual material, and some language)