Dr. Goodman helps terminally-ill patients pass on without pain, with the help of a special one-of-a-kind device. But one day he is summoned by Lilith, a mother whose daughter is ill. He enters the strange house and meets daughter Alice, who is confined to bed.
But the doctor soon discovers that he has been sent to play a part of a larger, more elaborate cult ritual to bring rain to a drought-ridden commune — and finds himself tested morally and in other ways as never before.
Writer-director Grayson Whitehurst’s short conceivable falls into a recent wave of highly stylized, atmospheric horror films about the occult. Shades of films like The Wicker Man and even The Witch clearly share some creative DNA with the storytelling, but Whitehurst’s film is distinguished not just by its sweeping and elegant visual style and its excellent performances, but by its philosophical engagement on the ethics of mercy killings, and the myth of control and understanding over something as inexorable as death.
The narrative doesn’t rely on shock or surprise to generate its interest, as it begins with a striking opening sequence of the cult itself, complete with unsettling, restless black-and-white images and an eerie and effective score.
Instead, as the well-meaning doctor enters the milieu, the puzzle becomes about how the doctor learns about the larger context of his work and how it transforms his own understanding of his mercy killing.
Actor Atticus Cain as Dr. Goodman essays the role as a man who believes that his work is meaningful and services a valuable need. But as his fiery, righteous foil, actress Eileen Weisinger turns the table against him in a powerful performance, playing upon his sense of conviction and his own need to feel comfortable with what he is doing.
When the doctor discovers how easily he is manipulated by forces beyond control, he realizes the line between being a murderer and an “angel of death” is blurred — and he’s completely unable to prevent the tragedy that happens.
Riveting and beautifully crafted, “A Handful of Dust” is spookily engaging from beginning to end, but what makes it memorable is its remote undertow of melancholy. As the film moves towards its conclusion, it becomes increasingly dark and shadowy, with faces and figures held at a distance in the shadows.
The final end feeling isn’t shock at what we’ve seen, or even relief that we’ve escaped peril. Instead, there is a pensive, almost numbing sadness and helplessness at how death is always senseless to those left behind, no matter how we try to control it.