(No longer in theaters)
Mar 27, 2009
The writer-director Ramin Bahrani’s stunning third feature, Goodbye Solo, opens with a medium close-up of actor Souléymane Sy Savané in mid-chortle. His face is marvelous—wide, reddish-brown, with an indentation in his cheek that’s the shape of a baby’s foot and laughing eyes that turn appraising in a heartbeat. He plays Solo, a Senegalese immigrant cabdriver in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and his old-duffer passenger, William (Red West), has just offered him a thousand dollars for a one-way trip (to commence in a week) to a mountaintop, Blowing Rock, where the wind is alleged to blow heavenward. You don’t need a weatherman to know which way that wind blows—the implication is unmistakable. Solo thinks it’s a big joke. When it finally registers that it isn’t, he sets about injecting himself into William’s solitary life, to the point of moving into the old man’s motel room. And we set about studying each of their faces.
Bahrani’s first film, the contrived but beautifully shot Man Push Cart, also centered on an industrious immigrant with a romantic worldview. (It’s dashed.) This time, he has made a true drama, a tug-of-war between hope and resignation in which neither player openly speaks to what’s coming. Solo engages, William parries. William yields but then the walls fly up and he curses Solo out like the ex-biker he is. Solo keeps on. He’s a hustler, in the best sense. He lives the way he plays soccer, guilelessly but inexhaustibly. His exhortations—“William, William, big dog, big dog”—can get on your nerves, but like the heroine of Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky, he’s not just a cockeyed optimist. He has a baby on the way, a family in Senegal, and a dream of becoming a flight attendant. He and William both want to fly, for opposite reasons.
The black man who represents the life force, who tries to revive the white person’s spirit, could be so Driving Miss Daisy, so Bagger Vance. It isn’t: The abyss is always visible. Red West’s eyes have bags under bags, yet they’re almost lidless, huge, and liquid. Those eyes let us in—while his harsh demeanor shuts us out. Like his protagonist, Bahrani never gives up on William; his camera never stops probing. He loves West’s face, and he honors its mystery.