A Craftsman

By Sanford Jenkins Jr. | Drama
Overcome with grief, a rural woodworker builds a coffin to join his wife.

Herman is a middle-aged rural woodworker who recently lost his beloved wife Joyce. Bereft and overcome with grief, he decides to end his life, building his own coffin as part of his preparation.

But soon his small community becomes curious about his project, as he’s joined by a neighbor who wants a coffin for his own and then the pastor at the church he’s stopped attending. They seem to leave Herman to his business — which doesn’t go the way Herman planned it.

Quiet, contemplative and imbued with a mournful serenity, director Sanford Jenkins Jr. — along with writer Joel David Santner — has crafted a introspective, meditative study about grief, mortality and what it takes to keep on going in life.

Taking place in a region of the country that seems untouched by the rhythms and demands of hypermodernity, the film also seems to be hermetically sealed off from the trends of contemporary American cinema. There’s no flashy camera movements, dazzling special effects or rapid-fire editing, or even the conventional setting-up of dramatic tension or interest found in more straightforward storytelling.

With its long unhurried takes, elegant simplicity and quiet sense of craftsmanship, the film leans on character, process and performance to draw audience into its uniquely singular experience, presenting a vignette of a turning point in a man’s life that’s as unadorned, unvarnished and straightforward as the character himself.

Indeed, the short — which won a Directors Guild Award for outstanding directing — seem to take its aesthetic cues from its Herman. The cinematography has a unfussy, meditative quality, dominated by rich shadows, and the editing unfurls the story in unhurried fashion, taking its time to unravel the full import of the moment. Though the narrative is framed by a dramatic premise — will Herman go through with his intention to end his life? — the contemplative feel prevents the film from tipping into melodrama.

The lead performance of actor Marvin Gay as Herman also contributes greatly to the subtle yet unique feel of the film. Gay plays Herman as a man weighed down by his emotions and stooped with grief, though he rarely ever expresses his feelings.

He proceeds about his business of preparing for death with a matter-of-fact stoicism and even dignity, and the quiet surety he brings to his decision seems to command respect (or at least uneasy silence) from his neighbor and his pastor, who registered varying degrees of skepticism and disbelief that never seem to overpower Herman’s own. He proceeds to the business of his own death with an unearthly calm, but life is unexpected, and when it intervenes in its own way, Herman’s grief finally comes to the fore in a moving, heartwrenching moment.

“A Craftsman” takes its cues from traditions outside conventional continuity-style filmmaking — film scholars can see traces of French filmmakers like Robert Bresson in its purity of craft, or an unhurried equanimity of Japanese filmmakers like Yasujiro Ozu.

Through its remarkably quiet, almost Buddhist-like style, the short offers the audience to watch the process of a man planning his own death without pushing them towards a conclusion or judgment — and in the process, creates a space for viewers to pose their own questions about mortality and let answers arise as they will, with a sense of uncertainty that’s as light and heavy as the shadows that surround Herman as he works.

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