Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Goodbye Solo: A Beautiful Marriage of Minimalism and Melodrama

Two men look at each other. They stare, not needing to say a word. They both know what will happen, and so does the audience. Moments like this one are rare in films, but somehow Ramin Bahrani has created a film where there are multiple instances like it – where the viewer is allowed to have the scene wash over them, instead of being bludgeoned over the head with the themes the filmmaker wishes to convey. The film is Goodbye Solo, and it’s not just a masterpiece in minimalism, melodrama, and subdued filmmaking; it’s a masterpiece of cinema, a rare film that transcends its simplistic indie aesthetics (although simplistic, the seemingly non existent √©lan of this film is more impressive than most films that try to be indie and arty) and elates the viewer placing them in the most wonderful of contemplative reveries.

I’m new to Bahrani, so although I understand that his previous films Chop Shop and Man Push Cart are indebted to the neo-realist movement, I cannot say for sure what specific moments of those films may or may not be alluded to in Goodbye Solo. All I know is that I immediately bumped the aforementioned films to the top of the Netflix queue. Goodbye Solo doesn’t feel so much neo-realist (it’s not driven by the everyday occurrences of its characters; and it’s definitely driven by a melodramatic plot) as it just feels real and natural; a perfect (and masterful) marriage of minimalism and melodrama. Bahrani loves to let the camera linger on his subjects so that we may ponder the existential dilemmas they face. It’s rare to see a filmmaker in the 21st century with such patience.

The story is a simple one: We begin the film in medias res in Winston-Salem, NC as Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane), a cab driver from Senegal, is laughing at something his passenger William (Red West) has told him. We come to find out that the specific bit of conversation that makes Solo guffaw is that William has propositioned Solo with a task that at first seems like William is just having a bad day, but as Solo begins to integrate himself in William’s life, sees that the man is deathly serious. The proposition is that William will pay Solo 1,000 dollars to drive him to Blowing Rock National Park where he will jump off the cliff and kill himself. If you think I just disclosed a valuable piece of the puzzle to this mystery I’m afraid you’re mistaken, and perhaps when you see the film (and you should see it) it will stretch you in ways no other film to this point. What I mean is that there is nothing conventional going on here. Bahrani is not interested in the mystery of whether William will kill himself, because William never speaks of needing a return cab ride from Solo, and once Solo attempts to befriend William and become his personal driver, he begins to see the William checking off the final entries on his itinerary: closing bank accounts, giving away personal items, etc.

Yes, Solo does befriend William, and yes they share some moments together that supply a brief reprise from the unavoidable tragic end Solo must usher William towards. However, that does not make the film depressing. One of my favorite adages Ebert created was: “no good film is depressing, only bad ones.” And indeed this film elevates you to another cinematic plane. I was reminded of Mike Figgis’ Leaving Las Vegas, another film about a man determined to kill himself only to be momentarily interrupted by a caring, refreshingly human soul. The two characters in that film, Ben and Sera, share a lot of behavioral similarities with William and Solo. The simplicity and subtlety of the film also reminded me of one of my favorite films from last year Wendy and Lucy. In that film there is also a refined, subdued aesthetic that draws attention to the long takes of peoples faces – moments where the audience can read the eyes of the characters, and long after a scene is over, the camera lingers just a little bit longer so that we may contemplate the events that have just unfolded.

During their friendship we’re let into Solo’s life as he is married with a child on the way and a brilliant step-daughter, Alex. She’s smart for her age, but she’s not one of those too-cute child actors who exists only as a plot contrivance, she brings a sweetness and innocence (even though she’s smart, the film is realistic in the sense that she doesn’t know everything) into Solo and William’s relationship that cuts through sadness. Her relationship with Solo, again, seems born out of reality. These scenes remind me of something out of a David Gordon Green film (who like Bahrani is a native of North Carolina): This all just seems right…this IS how these people would talk, react, and live their life. Solo is having some trouble, though. His wife doesn’t want him to interview for a flight attendants position because she doesn’t want him to be out of state with a baby on the way. He claims that she only wants him to try her plan, and that she doesn’t trust him with his plan. They decide to take a break, and throughout this process Solo becomes more and more interested in William.

The film is not about what Solo will do for William, and it’s not about William’s decision to kill himself. Sure, there are secrets revealed and epiphianic moments throughout their short friendship, but it’s more about how Solo changes, not how he tries to convince William to not go through with it all. Like Sera in Leaving Las Vegas, the film was always about what Ben did for her. As she looks into the camera at the end of that film and looks straight at the audience, you see a changed person, an individual who has done some soul searching, and – compared to who she was at the beginning of the film – is somewhat healed. So too does Solo change. As he looks at Red in those long takes Bahrani loves, we see a man who sees himself in Red. This is what he’ll become if he does not take seriously his family obligations. It’s not enough just to love them, and as he looks at William, knowing one of his big secrets, we see in Solo’s eyes that he will not allow himself to make the same mistakes.

Bahrani wisely metes out crucial pieces of information sparingly. Never once does he go for one big over-the-top melodramatic moment; rather, he lets the events unfold naturally. In a crucial scene towards the end of the film watch the way Savane as Solo plays the scene. Nothing is overdone, and we see a man who lives his life with a carefree attitude, who we see at the beginning of the film heartily, and genuinely, laughing with pleasure at life, evolve into someone who has a better understanding of life’s responsibilities.

The acting here is phenomenal, and not just by Savane, but by the old veteran Red West, too. Here’s a man who looks like something out of an old oater. I was reminded of the great actor Richard Farnsworth while watching him. He plays William as a man who isn’t necessarily opposed to Solo’s prodding, just as long as he doesn’t go too deep. “I don’t give a shit” is a favorite phrase of William’s, and I assume it would be the favorite saying for a man who plans to kill himself in 10 days. West plays Williams, though, as a man who has a deeper reasoning for the things he does and the places he frequents before his final cab ride, and he also seems to be a man who has a deeper reasoning for not wanting Solo, or his step-daughter Alexis, around too often.

The ending is about as perfect as an ending can be. Bahrani lets silence drive the end of his film, and when Solo and William just stare at each other, we thank Bahrani for not ruining the scene with unnecessary exposition. There’s a scene where Solo looks out over a viewpoint that is caked in fog, and as Solo looks out on the vast expanse of nothingness, I was reminded of the scene from Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise where the three characters, who are also on a journey of sorts, also come across a viewpoint of nothingness. It’s a powerful, contemplative moment, and like Jarmusch, Bahrani lets the gusts of wind be the only sound the audience hears during this pivotal moment.

Since I’m so late to the Bahrani bandwagon it shouldn’t shock anyone when I say he is clearly one of the leaders of the new wave of filmmaking; he’s someone who makes honest films in dishonest times, and even though they may be based in neo-realism, his films actually succeed where most neo-realist films fail: they place you in a specific place without having to feel the onus of reality; in other words I could see myself watching this film numerous times without it ever feeling stale (and let’s face it, some neo-realist work feels stale after awhile). There’s a subtle aesthetic at work in Bahrani’s film, an entity that deceives you into thinking that everything looks “easy”; but, everything Bahrani and his actors do in Goodbye Solo is extremely difficult and rarely found in modern films. You just don’t run across films like this very often. It’s easily one of the best films of 2009.


  1. Nice piece, Kevin ... I haven't seen "Goodbye Solo," but like you I'm new to Bahrani, having seen only "Man Push Cart" (and having written about it here.

    I've gotta see his other two, though, and your thoughtful review whets my appetite.

  2. I need to get into Bahrani, as he must be among the few American film makes who actually cites Abbas Kiarostami as an influence (he's certainly the only one I can think of), and he said this film was inspired by Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry; a very difficult, deliberately polarizing film about a man's quest to find someone to help him with his suicide.

    Great review, Kevin, looking forward to checking this one out (and his other films).

  3. Rick:

    I loved your review of Man Push Cart, that is one film I am really looking forward to. Thanks for the kind words. Always great to see you around here!

  4. Ryan:

    I have not seen Taste of Cherry, in fact the only thing I remember about that movie was Ebert's famous one-star review of the film after it had one a pretty major international award (maybe even the Palm D'or? I can't remember). I am excited to watch his other films in the coming weeks. Thanks for the kind words and for stopping by!

  5. Yes Kevin it is "easily one of the best films of 2009" and this remarkable review is perhaps the best I have ever read here at Hugo Stiglitz. I think you nailed it here:

    "The film is not about what Solo will do for William, and it’s not about William’s decision to kill himself. Sure, there are secrets revealed and epiphianic moments throughout their short friendship, but it’s more about how Solo changes, not how he tries to convince William to not go through with it all."

    You speak of the film's unforced naturalism, the effective understating performances, and the excellent use of locations. It's true what you say there about MAN PUSH CART and CHOP SHOP being part of the contemporary neo-realist movements, but both those films are mere warm-ups for this one, which evinces far more substantial emotional resonance. A few cynics have attacked the ending and the film's obvious indeptedness to the masterpiece A TASTE OF CHERRY, but Bahrani beats to his own drum here, creating a plausible character study that haunts long after you leave the theatre.

    I reviewed the film myself at WitD months back, but this is YOUR show here and you really whet my appetite to see this again!

  6. Sam:

    You're too kind! I too will be seeing this again. I read your review in preparation for my own, so my guess is subconsciously your thoughts were with me as I was writing this. Your review was fantastic, and I count it among a few of the best I've read about the film (Andrew at Gateway Cinephiles being the other review I looked at before writing this).

    I'm glad you enjoyed the review so much. Great films bring out the best writers in us, don't they...

    As always, your presence here betters the blog.