Face to Face

Photo: Courtesy of Universal Pictures

So much of a movie’s appeal comes down to whether you enjoy staring at the actors’ faces for a couple of hours. In Goodbye Solo (see below), there are two tantalizing, unfamiliar ones—new maps to pore over. But the familiar face of Julia Roberts in the pretzel-plotted corporate-espionage thriller Duplicity holds surprises, too. Roberts took a break after her less-than-stellar Broadway debut in 2006, and she’s now more drawn, which means her mouth is proportionately larger, which means she’s closing in on Heath Ledger–Joker territory. But she’s still nice to look at. She’s starting to bleed in the mind’s eye into Kyra Sedgwick, who played her sister in Something to Talk About and whose face has, conversely, softened with age. Roberts’s features are tense, but that works for the role of Claire (ironic name alert), a corporate counterspy who might or might not be playing fellow agent Ray (Clive Owen) for a chump. If this were a Mamet movie, you’d have no doubt Claire will turn out to be a whore with her eye on the mother lode, but writer-director Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) is the most romantic of conspiracy theorists. Maybe Owens’s charms (he’s wolfish yet needy) have actually gotten to her.

Duplicity is deeply shallow—cheap reversals all the way down. But it’s a passably amusing brainteaser. At its center are rival corporations with CEOs played by Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson, who have a crazy hatred for each other and want to steal each other’s secrets. Claire and Ray ostensibly work for Giamatti, the shadier and more repulsive, but they have side machinations of their own. The question of why—apart from their good looks—we should root for them hangs in the air; they’re thoroughly immoral. But Gilroy resolves that issue satisfactorily. As he proved in Michael Clayton, he knows how to write a final scene. He knows how to write an opener, too. It’s in the middle that things get laborious.

Duplicity is certainly busy. Gilroy tarts it up with multiple gliding split screens (they work better on 24), and James Newton Howard’s brassy score gives the illusion of momentum even when the frames are inert. Gilroy does loop-de-loops with the syntax. There’s an overture in which Ray seduces Claire—or has Claire seduced Ray into seducing her? Then it’s five years later. Then it’s two years earlier. Then it’s next week, then last week, then three minutes from now, then 10,000 years on, when the robots have taken over. Michael J. Fox flies by in a DeLorean. After a flurry of climactic flashbacks, we finally take in the whole puzzle picture. The last shot of Roberts and Owen is what we’ve waited two hours to see. Gilroy knows that after all the whizbang convolutions, it still comes down to a look on a movie star’s face …

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.

The winner of the Camera D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, Steve McQueen’s stark debut Hunger recounts the last days of Bobby Sands (played by Michael Fassbender), the Irish Republican Army member who starved himself to death in prison in 1981. The movie is a triptych. In the first section, IRA soldiers who insist on being treated as political prisoners (not Thatcher’s “hooligans”) smear their cells with excrement and are brutally beaten by guards. It’s excruciating but extremely stylish; even a long shot of a guard hosing layers of fecal matter off a wall looks like an art-school project. The central section is all dialogue, fourteen minutes worth, a debate (done in one take) between Sands and a priest (Liam Cunningham) about the purpose and ethics of a hunger strike. (The priest thinks it’s self-serving and immoral, the bullheaded Sands charges on.) The final section is nearly wordless: Bobby slowly shrinking to a skeleton, his tight white skin erupting in angry sores. When he finally takes his last breath, he is bathed in white light. The movie is a political remake of The Passion of the Christ, only more aestheticized: It’s rigorous, evocative, and, in spite of its grisly imagery, elegant. It’s a triumph—of masochistic literal-mindedness.

Directed by Tony Gilroy.
Universal Pictures. PG-13.

Goodbye Solo
Directed by Ramin Bahrani.
Roadside Attractions. NR.

Directed by Steve McQueen.
IFC Films. NR.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.

Face to Face