By Willie Krischke — August 21, 2009
Ramin Bahrani is quietly making a name for himself as one of America’s best, most interesting young directors. Well, maybe not so quietly. Roger Ebert recently declared him “The New Great American Director” and his movies (“Man Push Cart,” “Chop Shop” and this one) were prominently featured in A.O. Scott’s recent New York Times Magazine article, “Neo-neo realism.” So the critics are taking notice of Bahrani, even if audiences aren’t necessarily — “Solo” grossed a meager $850,000 at the box office, a discouraging number until you consider that it’s roughly 6 times what “Chop Shop” took in and 25 times what “Man Push Cart’s” gross. So maybe in, say, three centuries, he’ll be at Michael Bay numbers. One can dream.
It would take roughly that long for Michael Bay (of “Transformers,” “Pearl Harbor,” and “Armageddon” fame–and money) to learn the craft and skill that Bahrani has shown with his first three films. It takes about fifteen seconds of “Goodbye Solo” to realize you’re in the hands of a master storyteller. In the back of a taxicab is an old man with a weathered and mean face. He has asked the driver, an African with a giant smile and a scraggly faux-beard, to pick him up in two weeks’ time and take him to the top of a nearby mountain and leave him there. He will pay him $1,000 to do this simple task, and gives him $100 right away to seal the deal. One would assume the thousand bucks is supposed to ensure that the driver – his name is Solo, and he’s from Senegal – asks no questions. But Solo can’t help himself. Why would this old, sad-looking man want a one-way ride to the middle of nowhere? Is he planning his death? Well, what other reason could there be?
We never learn very much about these two men. What I should say is that we never learn very much about their pasts – we learn a great deal about them by watching them interact, converse, and deal with life. Bahrani’s camera is always curious but never intrusive, always observing the scene but never forcing the action. For Solo, the very idea of ending one’s life — for any reason –is horrific and unthinkable. He basically friendlies his way into William’s life, against the old man’s modest protestations, until the two are living out of the same hotel room. Solo has his own problems. Solo loves his wife, but she is controlling and bossy and keeps raining on his dreams. He doesn’t want to drive a taxi anymore; he wants to be a flight attendant, but he keeps failing the entrance exam. William helps him study, and becomes a sort of curmudgeonly grandfather to Solo’s precocious stepdaughter. (William writes in his journal: “I don’t think Solo realizes that she fixed the curtains. She is so smart. I wonder who she will become.”)
I think it is Solo’s hope that, if he befriends William, makes him part of his family, involves him in his troubles and joys and occasionally takes him out to play pool and drink beer, William will find something worth living for and change his mind. But he’s a stubborn old man, and he’s clearly given this plan a lot of thought. To my eye, he also looks clinically depressed, which makes him a tragic figure – unable to experience lasting joy, and unable to seek the help that would allow him to change that fact. Stubborn, mean-looking old men like William don’t take girly antidepressants, though they probably need them more than anybody.
Spoiler warning: stop reading here if you don’t want to know how “Goodbye Solo” turns out–
In the end, William’s stubbornness wins out. And yet, “Goodbye Solo” is hardly an argument for the Death With Dignity camp. (I don’t think Bahrani would ever be so overtly political as that.) Solo’s mind doesn’t change; even as he drives William to his chosen destination in the mountains, he is clearly deeply saddened by what is happening. He has done everything in his power to change his friend’s mind, and failed. Now he has no power at all. Solo decides to help his friend do something he doesn’t want his friend to do, because he knows that if he doesn’t, his friend will simply find a stranger who will. It is an agonizing decision, a morally complicated decision, the kind that ought to keep one up at night – and it does. I don’t know if I would make the same decision as Solo, but I don’t know that I wouldn’t, either. And that moral complexity — seamlessly embedded in an engrossing story — is what makes “Goodbye Solo” Bahrani’s best movie yet. It’s a film that will stick with you, and possibly keep you up at night as well. In my mind, those are the best kind.
- if you have enjoyed Bahrani’s last few films. I think this is the best one yet.
- if you’re intrigued by “Neo neo realism.”
- if you like movies that ask difficult ethical and moral questions before they’re done with you.
- if you’re not in the mood for a slow, thoughtful, observant and somber movie.
- if you don’t like sad endings.
PS – Red West, who plays William, was once a bodyguard and driver for Elvis Presley — part of the original “Memphis Mafia.” He’s also been a boxer and a Marine. One gets the feeling he’s earned the tired wrinkles that line his face.
PPS – Wondering about all the Michael Bay hate? This AV Club article pretty well sums it up.