The pathos of To Dust doesn’t rely specifically on death at all, but rather on the lives altered by its inevitability.
We often think about death in the abstract. Regardless of religious affiliation, many people visualize departed loved ones as looking down from a “better place” or at least having transcended their physical suffering to rest in peace. Various religions may involve their own unique rites for preparing bodies for the grave, while secular corpses may be somewhat more likely to end up in an urn or donated to science. But regardless of what happens to our mortal coil after we depart it, there’s a tendency to think of one’s soul, consciousness or essence as separate from one’s earthly remains.
Not so in the unique dramedy To Dust. In Shawn Snyder’s directorial debut, a grieving Hasidic man named Shmuel (Géza Röhrig), who believes that his dead wife’s soul remains at least partially bound to her corpse until she completely decays into the soil, grows obsessed with learning about the stages of human decomposition. His fixation on the details of putrefaction comes at the expense of his two emotionally neglected boys (Leo Heller and Sammy Voit). At one point he even rows his sons out to the middle of a lake and demands they speak to their dead mother’s disembodied presence there. They chalk up his unorthodox behavior to the assumption that he’s possessed by a wandering ghost, or dybbuk, in a side plot that finds the young boys speaking directly to their sleeping father’s big toe.
As Shmuel seeks outside assistance in his quest to learn precisely how a body rots (he even awkwardly interrogates a coffin salesman), To Dust begins to operate as a grim buddy comedy when he heads to a local community college in search of a “scientist.” What he gets instead is a wise-cracking, weed-smoking science teacher named Albert (Matthew Broderick), whose initial reluctance to indulge the grisly inquiries from Shmuel ultimately melts into compassion and hands-on scientific curiosity that leads to the two men killing and burying a pig.
The film’s washed-out color palette and reliance on natural lighting evoke the bleak subject matter, and yet Snyder shows restraint in keeping his film from leaning too heavily on the macabre. For a story about rotting bodies, there’s little emphasis on actually depicting the dead, Shmuel’s wife’s pale cadaver ritualistically moved from the morgue slab to a pine box in the film’s opening sequence notwithstanding. More often, the bodies, whether human or porcine, are kept obscured behind mounds of dirt, under burial shrouds or behind corpse-farm walls—an obscuration that mirrors the tortured Shmuel’s own clouded understanding of the natural processes of death. As a result, the pathos of To Dust doesn’t rely specifically on death at all, but rather on the lives altered by its inevitability.
Snyder, who co-wrote the script with Jason Begue, imbues the grim subject matter with levity primarily through Broderick’s irreverent, lighthearted Albert, a comic foil to Shmuel’s desperate intensity. What results is an unconventional rumination on death that touches upon religion, philosophy, and science without ever getting bogged down by them, instead depicting each of those disciplines as the helpful but ultimately inadequate tools we use to make sense of the cold foreknowledge of our own mortality.