Comfortable and Furious

Goodbye Solo (2008)

In its own way, this film is perfect. From start to finish, the performances are flawless, not a moment is wasted, and the story ends just as it should. I would use the word masterpiece, but director Ramin Bahrani is only on his third feature, and given his work in Man Push Cart and Chop Shop, it is impossible to tell just how high this guy can rise. The general themes of his films are an examination of the lowest possible strata of the working class from the point of view of the immigrant experience, but that description does not do justice to his ability with bringing out the human element. The only director to which Bahrani compares would be Mike Leigh, not only for his subjects, but for his peerless ability to direct actors, particularly actors with no experience whatsoever. Their performances seem organic and are integral to sucking you into a story that does not let you go.

Bahrani’s latest, Goodbye Solo, starts with Solo, a Senegalese cab driver working the night shift in Winston-Salem, laughing in response to a proposition by William, a crusty old southern white guy who just wants to be left alone. Alone until one week later, when Solo is to drive him on a one-way trip to the top of a mountain in Blowing Rock National Park for $1000, and leave him there. Solo is uncomfortable with this charge, but agrees primarily to get to know William, and understand why he wants this. William’s shell is difficult to penetrate – the word standoffish is hardly adequate, and he deeply resents the attention. Solo, on the other hand, has an infectious smile, a hearty laugh that dares you to not join in, the kind of person for whom the word gregarious was invented.

While this sounds like an annoying odd couple setup, the characters feel real, and the course of human behavior never takes the prosaic road. Solo attacks the man with punishing blows of convivial talk and inviting him over to meet his family, out to meet his friends, and even moves into the man’s hotel room, all to get to the heart of William, and to the reason for his final journey. There are no pat explanations regarding the motivations of either lead as we get to know Solo and William – all we learn about them is through implication, and we are left to connect the points.

Solo speaks almost constantly, peppering his conversation with “I got you, knowmsayin” and everyone is “Big Dog” – the film is genuinely funny, and if there was no story, it would still be supremely entertaining. Behind the chatter, however, there is a great deal more. He has plans, studying for an airline attendant exam so he can do something other than drive cabs to provide for his family. His is a life of constant grind, but he wears this like a light jacket and an effortless smile. William has come to town for a reason, and has a secret. This is revealed before he departs for Blowing Rock, where the winds are so powerful that they will blow objects back up to the rock. The Rock and the power of the high winds to return objects cast out over the abyss are quite real, and this appears to be the setup for a redemptive moment. The final moment is not so simple.

A less inspired filmmaker would make this movie about Solo, and his efforts to break through to this old guy and teach him a new appreciation for life and William would see the light, cry and give an Oscar baiting speech before moving in with Solo’s family and making pancakes for them. Fortunately, Bahrani has a deeper agenda, and that rests with his utterly real characters, and the lives they lead within the natural rhythms of Winston-Salem. Solo is not a preternaturally wise and plucky individual (to wit, a Magical Negro) who never steps wrong – he is not great at his job, never shuts up, is easily distracted and fails to take care of business that matters. He does not spend time with his family, instead hanging out with William, intruding into his business, and despite that Solo is a hoot and very friendly, this is all none of his business. William may be a crotchety old bugger, but the film never forgets that he has his reasons. It is almost jarring to watch a film by someone who actually has a healthily distanced perspective.

Apart from the immigrant experience, there is a subtext of cultural disconnect. The lead character does comment that in his village, the elderly are well cared for, and he does not understand why Americans view their aged as disposable. Certainly, it is implied that William is a man who has been used up, and has little life left in him. He is not sick, just tired. Even though he begins to warm up to this affable Senegalese man, his candle continues to flicker weakly, on the cusp of being extinguished.

Eventually, the time runs out, and William leaves. The final scenes are about as flawless as cinema can be, and unlike the preceding acts, the crackling dialogue yields to a mostly silent discussion. Few words pass between these men, as they have reached an understanding. Solo has come to realize he does not have all the answers, and though he does not understand what has driven William to this point, his lack of comprehension is his own problem. He must respect the man’s decision, and let go because this isn’t about Solo.

As in his previous works, Bahrani makes good use of unforced symbolism at Blowing Rock, as Solo hurls a stick off the rock to see if the stories about the strength of the winds are true. Ingeniously, we do not see what happens to the stick, and avoid a trite moment. You see, whether the stick is blown back or disappears, which would evoke William’s fate, is immaterial. The decision was never Solo’s to influence. To treat suicide as a highly personal matter shows an extraordinary maturity, but even more so it is implied that a true understanding of one’s fellow human being is impossible. Though we both desire and require companionship, ultimately our compulsions and decisions are lonely matters.

Though the year is young, I have little doubt that this will remain one of the finest films of the year, and the performances by the leads, Red West and Soulyemane Sy Savane, are two of the most extraordinary in recent memory. Savane in particular exercises the gravitas of an actor who has been in the business for decades, and this is his first film. One can hope this will not be his last.