There are indie filmmakers who try to work in the realm of small character dramas and succeed only in making myopic films that feel inert and meaningless; there are those who attempt to stand out from the pack by writing scripts replete with quirky story lines and witty dialogue, only to end up with a mundane mess; and then there are a few who manage to achieve, through a combination of richly drawn, yet simple stories and excellent cinematography, a level of filmmaking that inspires without overwhelming, impresses without overreaching. Ramin Bahrani falls firmly in the latter camp, and with his latest film, Goodbye Solo, the director builds on the excellence of his previous work with a finely drawn tale of a cabdriver and the fare who changes his life.
Bahrani starts with an intriguing premise: Solo, a cab driver (Souléymane Sy Savané) picks up a routine fare, only to find his life turned upside down when the man he picks up asks him to take him to the remote mountaintop location of Blowing Rock in two weeks, where he plans to jump to his death. Solo's troubled by both the plans of his fare, William (Red West) to end his life, and the implications to himself of being a party to the man's suicide; he decides to befriend the older man in an attempt to persuade him to change his plans. This is the simple set-up for the film, and it's all Bahrani needs to make a thoughtful, compelling film that explores the relationship between these two vastly different men and the way they're changed by the friendship they form.
Bahrani is a filmmaker with a specific vision for the kinds of films he wants to create, and he excels at making deceptively minimalist, character-focused films; he's a firm believer in simplicity in filmmaking, and doesn't rely on tricksy conceits, convoluted plots, or funky camera angles to make his point. With Goodbye Solo, he builds on the filmmaking style he's evolved with his critically acclaimed films Man Push Cart and Chop Shop, keeping his lens firmly fixed on his characters; the emotions he evokes with his latest effort, though, are stronger and more compelling, and this is my favorite of his films to date.
The storyline for Goodbye Solo was inspired by Bahrani's chance encounters with two people: an older man Bahrani used to pass daily and exchange waves with outside an assisted living center, and a young Senegalese taxi driver. Bahrani's family used to vacation at Blowing Rock when he was a child, and the remote mountaintop, where wind swirls around a rock jutting into the sky, became the final element that would tie the film together. The casting of the lead roles, though, was crucial to making the film work, and Bahrani's choice of Red West, who was famously a bodyguard to Elvis Presley and a member of the "Memphis Mafia," to play the part of William, is spot-on. West lends a sense of world-weariness to the role of William that's etched in every line of the actor's face; every fiber of his being radiates a soul-crushing exhaustion with the burden of living, of mistakes made and opportunities squandered.
Savané, a newcomer, plays Solo with a chatty cheeriness that foils nicely off William's gloomy, silent moodiness. Solo's a positive, upbeat guy; he brushes off his pregnant wife's constant haranguing, banters with his fares, and dreams of becoming a flight attendant. Solo introduces William to his young stepdaughter, Alex, with whom William forms an emotional bond, thus complicating his plans to end his life in two weeks. Bahrani and his co-writer,
Bahareh Azimi, arc the characters perfectly: Solo transitions seamlessly from the smiling, talkative extrovert we meet in the beginning of the film to the thoughtful, introspective, fully fleshed man we know by the end. The changes in William are more subtle; he resists Solo's overtures of friendship, and even Alex's charms, resolute in his plan to end his life, but the persistence of Solo's concern slowly breaks through his chiseled reserve.
Bahrani and his cinematographer, Michael Simmonds (who also shot Man Push Cart and Chop Shop) started planning the framing of shots for the film months before shooting commenced, working through minute details such as how to shoot the scenes in the cab: when to cut between William and Solo, when to frame the shot with William's face in the rear-view mirror and Solo in front, and at what point in the story William should transition from riding in the back of the cab to the front, reflecting the shift in the men's relationship from driver and fare, to friends.
The timing of the shoot was planned so the cast and crew would be able to shoot the film's final scene at Blowing Rock close to October 20, the date William plans to end his life. The rich autumn colors that paint the mountains evoke a sense of the short-lived beauty of a life that must inevitably, whither and turn gray with barren emptiness. Bahrani's restraint in never overplaying the more subtly poetic moments of the film is a hallmark of his minimalist style; those moments are rendered that much more powerful by their understatement.
I'd already seen many of the better films that played the Toronto International Film Festival this year at Cannes and Telluride, but of the films I caught at TIFF, Goodbye Solo was by far my favorite. The film played well in Venice just before Toronto, earning a standing ovation and winning the FIPRESCI international film critics' award. If you've not discovered this talented young filmmaker previously, this is a great film with which to get started; if you're already a fan of Bahrani's work in Man Push Cart and Chop Shop, you'll not be disappointed by this latest effort.
Bahrani was recognized with the "Someone to Watch" award at the 2008 Independent Spirit Awards; he's already shown such remarkable talent with his first three films, it's exciting to ponder what he'll do next (here's a hint, though: his next film will be a period drama, set in the Gold Rush, titled Ship of Fools). For now, though sit back and savor Goodbye Solo if it eventually plays in your area -- and see it, if you can, in a theater. This intimate story of friendship and finality -- and Simmond's gorgeous cinematography -- deserves to be seen in all its glory on a big screen.