Carolina Blues: Ramin Bahrani's Goodbye Solo

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Iranian-American writer/director Ramin Bahrani’s Goodbye Solo opens with the initial greet-and-meet between Solo (Souléymane Sy Savané), a cheerful Senegalese cabbie, and his latest fare off of Winston-Salem’s mostly-empty streets: William (Red West), an old, morose, buttoned-up Southerner who — en route to a movie theatre where he could be considered a habitué — commissions Solo to be his on-call Kevorkian. Come a fortnight, Solo is to spirit William to the literal edge of his world, an empty mountaintop that’s appropriately named Blowing Rock. It’s taking the tacit social contract of a taxi to its most logical extreme.

This first scene is straight exposition — the Who, What, Where, and When line the frame, but the Why is shrewdly withheld until later. It’s also the jump-off point for Solo’s ever-optimistic mission to pluck William from the depths of his unspoken, but undoubted, depression. Unfazed by the cold shoulder, Solo takes to towing him around on his late-night excursions around town — whether it’s shuttling a long-time friend on an apparent drug run or going to the pool hall to down some brews. Cinematographer Michael Simmonds’ intimate camera trains itself on their telltale faces throughout this uneasy pas de deux. On repeat, Solo’s melting smile and William’s dour look become as enduring as the busts of Mount Rushmore.

To stress his empathetic commitment, Solo ignores the weighty public-private divide by bringing William home one night, easing the stranger’s apprehension with a mi casa, su casa warmth even as his pregnant wife berates him. An unusual and fragile friendship hatches thanks to this winning determination, which Solo punctuates by signing off each sentence with a humorous “big dog,” or better yet, “player.” Despite the breakthrough, though, the do-or-die chasm still remains: They’re only hollering at each other from opposite sides of the abyss.

Thus, Bahrani, a Winston-Salem native, presents a pointed instance of Southern hospitality in reverse: the garrulous Senegalese polyglot has to coax monosyllabic responses from the American. As with his two knockout takes on realism, Man Push Cart and Chop Shop, Bahrani continues to ennoble the down-and-dirty folks in the margin by depicting them as indomitable, capable and compassionate, all without letting us forget that they’re human and fallible. Solo, for all his hope, isn’t just some free spirit looking to save the South’s Glum Ol’ Boys — he turns a blind eye to the backseat drug dealing and frequents the bar where his ex-girlfriend works. A cabbie without a cab — fellow employees shuttle him to and fro — he balances the grinding, for-the-family struggle with his personal, pie-in-the-sky notion of becoming a flight attendant. It’s a dream that his wife strongly discourages, but it also inches him closer to William — both look to the sky as an escape from their earthbound selves.

Throughout, the Solo-dominated conversations touch upon subjects as disparate as Aristotle and big booties (which both men express wholehearted appreciation for), Hank Williams and Machu Picchu. But never the enigmatic past — we only know that William’s wife left him thirty years back. As the agreed-upon date approaches, it becomes clear that William’s resolve has been steady as a flat-line all along, with Solo’s occasional life-affirming blips smoothed out as William’s pragmatic bucket list strikes out.

Though increasingly a foregone conclusion, the near-wordless ending — set in the autumnal, ochre-colored majesty of the Blue Ridge Parkway — is the poetry after these pages of dramatic prose. It’s transcendent, cathartic, and exactly what the Neorealists and Iranian New Wavers — whose imprints on Bahrani are ineffable — were revered for: A built-up emphasis on compassion, acceptance against all odds, and the simple preciousness of life. Harmonizing silence with the slicing echo of howling winds, Bahrani offers an elemental glimpse into the abyss and through his beautifully-restrained touch, you’re not only moved, but fortified.

With Goodbye Solo, Bahrani has only one-upped himself and his much-envied oeuvre. The character arch is archetypal — the odd couple that helps one another decipher or come to terms with the world, usually through sacrifice — but Bahrani quietly manages to infuse humor, warmth, and hard-won, honest-to-gauche emotion into his backdrop of resignation. Solo and William, for all their diametric qualities, never devolve into symbols in motion. Instead, Bahrani’s commitment to realism and its already-rich details ensures that their feet are never too far off the earth.

The lead performances are remarkable through and through. In West’s stone-faced appearance, Bahrani has found the perfect face for William, a character whose portrait you’d find beneath Unwanted & Hurt and above Reward $1000. He may be famous for membership in the showy Memphis Mafia (as Elvis’ no-nonsense bodyguard and buddy), but his devastatingly nuanced turn — all in-the-distance eyes and jowls — tears at your chest cavity. Yet, Savané somehow steals the show. His joie de vivre brims off the screen, his company so soulful and involving that, after the ninety minutes have elapsed, you can’t even say see you later.

Stay tuned for Jason Jude Chan’s interview with Ramin tomorrow. Click here to find out where the film is screening in your area.