Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Apr 18, 2009 9:20 pm 
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Bringing it all back home

This third feature from Iranian-descent North Carolinian Bahrani takes a theme from Abbas Kiarostami's The Taste of Cherries, of a man seeking a driver to help him commit suicide, and makes it as American and Edward Hopper as night movie ticket windows, sleazy motel rooms, road houses, cabs on call, and fractured families. Bahrani's surefooted story blends elements of Kafkaesque nightmare and shaggy dog story and, though well grounded in realistic, no-nonsense images and everyday settings, is also surrounded in mystery. What's behind this plan of William (Red West) to be driven from Winston-Salem to the windy heights of Blowing Rock? We only know that he has some sketchy relationship to a boy selling tickets at a movie theater, has sold his house, and then, helped by the cab driver, grimly moves into a cheap motel room with a few belongings.

For a driver, William has somehow gotten saddled with Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane), a friendly and garrulous Senegalese with a Mexican wife, Quiera (Carmen Leyva), and a clever little stepdaughter, Alex (Diana Franco Galindo. Quiera is pregnant with Solo's child, but they are at odds over his plan to become a flight attendant, and Solo seems half in and half out of the house. From the evening when William gives him a hundred dollars as advance on a $1,000 payment to take him to Blowing Rock on a set day, which he strongly suspects is to do away with himself, Solo refuses to let the gruff old man alone. He takes William out to play pool and drink and then sleep it off at his house. When his wife objects he moves into William's motel room for a while. He makes sure no other drivers from the W.C.C. cab company pick up William. William is trying to shut down, but Solo won't let him.

After a while you realize the focus is not so much on what will happen to William as what will happen to Solo, that Solo's situation is shaky, mysterious, and perhaps desperate, and that you're not going to find any ultimate answers about either of the two men who are now so oddly conjoined. The key to the story is the story, and Bahrani makes excellent use of the inner and outer nature of his two principals and their checkered careers. Red West was a Marine, stuntman, and boxer, and later a bodyguard for Elvis Presley, and his face has a John Ford cowboy hero's weathered graininess. When he lights a cig and stares into space it's no act. Sy Savane is a one-time fashion model and African TV star and a Winston-Salem cab driver who was a flight attendant for an African airline. He knows the answers to the flight attendant exam Solo's studying for, except that Solo fails the interview. He is athletic and handsome and the radiance of his smile suffuses his whole face. But for all his confidence there's a sense that Solo's dodging about the edges of Winston-Salem because he has friends on the dark side, but he's still an outsider. Bahrani's previous Chop Shop focused on Latino kids eeking out a living amid the competing de facto car parts dealers in the Iron Triangle of Willets Point, Queens. Here he takes it all back home, because North Carolina is where he grew up, even if he felt like an outsider. Goodbye, Solo feels more securely grounded but also more open--an impression visually underlined when Solo drives Alex and William out into the softly multicolored mountainsides around Blowing Rock.

The virtue of the film is that it focuses so simply and wholeheartedly on its actors and their characters. There is no quirky Jim Jarmusch wit in the taxicab scenes, never any loss of focus on the confused urgency of Solo's and William's divergent quests. The conclusion may leave you feeling lost in uncertainty amid the fog and whirling winds of Blowing Rock. There's nothing particularly neat or tidy about this ending. But the whole movie is worth the long look William and Solo give each other before they part for the last time. This moment more than the rest of the movie conveys a sense of Bahrani's attention and curiosity--which come with a healthy awareness that he hasn't got the answers, but he has got a grip on some of the big questions by now. Though he gives us only a piece of the puzzle, his interest in new immigrants is admirably free of indie cuteness or dramatic flourishes, and the whole movie is edited with a sure and classic touch that makes this feel like the second great American movie of the year about real people, after James Gray's Two Lovers.

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