A One-Way Trip
2008 // USA // Ramin Bahrani // May 21, 2009 // Theatrical Print
B+ - With the plaintive, graceful Goodbye Solo, director Ramin Bahrani offers his take on the hoary trope of two outsiders connecting under unusual circumstances, here in the form of Senegalese-American cab driver Solo (Soleymane Sy Savane) and his elderly white passenger, William (Red West). It's an odd choice for Bahrani, given that the filmmaker's two previous feature films—Man Push Cart and Chop Shop—are regarded as masterpieces of contemporary neo-realism, eschewing traditional narrative for immersion in the routines and everyday joys and tragedies of their characters. Solo takes a less oblique approach, urging us forward through a story engineered for melodramatic sparks. The dour William slides into the back of Solo's cab one night on the grubby streets of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and offers the cabbie $1,000 if, two weeks hence, he will drive him to Blowing Rock, a mountain peak famed for its devilish updrafts. From the germ of this odd transaction, which makes the garrulous Solo uneasy, a lively, troubled relationship sprouts over the course of the following days. Through most of its running time, Goodbye Solo is genuinely engaging in a way that has nothing to do with its plot, which flirts with triteness in places and appears unfortunately shapeless in others. What mesmerizes is the way that Bahrani tells the story, with breathtaking subtlety and a serene astonishment for the particulars of character and place. Despite Solo's ceaseless, probing patter, the film discovers its finest moments in its silences, and in the long, wordless gazes its two protagonists share.
In the days leading up to William's trip to the mountain, Solo shuttles the old coot around as he moves out of his apartment and into a motel, closes his bank accounts, and sees a lot of movies at the local arthouse. To Solo—and the viewer—it's plain that William is wrapping up his final business. Something about this seems to offend Solo morally, albeit in a way that prompts concern and relentless reassurances rather than indignant anger. Perhaps it's just that the cabbie is so passionate about building a successful and happy life in America, he cannot comprehend why a man would wind down every trace of himself. William is taciturn and unpleasant most of the time, so Solo is left to ponder and pose questions. He asks the cab dispatcher—heard on the radio and off-screen, but never glimpsed—what she knows about Blowing Rock. He swipes William's pills and presents them to a pharmacist: Are these the sort of medicines you might take if you were dying?
Meanwhile, Solo has struggles of his own, most of which he tackles with a seemingly unflappable spirit. He works long shifts at all hours, gliding through the city's sad, darkened neighborhoods. He dreams of becoming an airline steward, but his girlfriend, Quiera (Carmen Leyva), who is nine months pregnant with their child, scolds him for studying for the entrance exam. He sees an airline job as a path to greater prosperity, but she only envisions long separations and an absent father. Meanwhile, Solo tries to befriend William, offering him a couch to sleep on and a bit of companionship, daring to hope that he can talk him out of his vague and ominous plans. The older man complains about the cabbie's cloying attentions, but falls asleep on the couch just the same. Solo chisels at the man's frosty edges with kindness, trying to discern the buried devils that torment him, as though somewhere on the other side of William's pain he might discover a salve for his own fears.
The racial angles within Bahrani's story are acknowledged, but they serve primarily to lend realism to its events. Indeed, while Goodbye Solo never forgets the cultural gulf that separates Solo and William, the film shuns cheap odd-couple moments in favor of the more unexpected and affecting dimensions to the story. William serves as a dark reflection of Solo, his joyless, friendless existence contrasting with the cabbie's boisterous demeanor. Yet something about William obviously frightens Solo, prodding the despair and self-doubt that curl like ravenous snakes in his gut. The cabbie can see his own future in William's final weeks: destitute, purposeless, hobbled by a failed marriage, and shuffling about in a feeble form. William's jowls and haunted eyes declare, "As you are now, so once was I, as I am now, so you shall be." In one early scene, William rides along silently while Solo takes another passenger on a shady errand, the old man serving as a kind of living memento mori, suggesting both the treacherous nature of the fare and identity of the proverbial Final Passenger.
Complementing William is Quiera's young daughter, Alex (Diana Franco Galinda), a ruthlessly bright and feisty girl who replenishes Solo with her presence. She seems to thaw William's demeanor as well, but for every step forward the old man takes, he takes another two back into darkness. Solo returns to the calendar in his planner often, counting down the days until the trip to Blowing Rock. If he can somehow convince the old man to abandon his trek to the mountaintop, what then? What does that mean? Would it be salvation for William, or would it be denying him his final act of furious defiance? Bahrani observes the emotional complexities of the situation with stunning delicacy. He attunes the viewer to them not through endless expository dialog, but by focusing on his actors' faces. Savane, so glib and enthusiastic throughout most of the film, slows Solo down to devastating effect in select scenes, his eyes red and tongue thick in his throat. West's ruined visage, all leather pouches, becomes an edifice of testy regret, all misanthropy and directionless rage simmering beneath a lethargic facade.
Nothing particularly surprising happens within Bahrani's tale, and the film's few revelations tumble into view in the slow, heedless manner that poorly kept secrets often do in real life. Goodbye Solo is less concerned with constructing a gripping narrative than in watching its two protagonists react to circumstances both mundane and unconventional, and then watching their reactions to those reactions. Given that a nickel summary of the story carries the reek of awards-bait, it's all the more remarkable then that the tone of the film is so forlorn, removed, and even chilly. Whatever the film lacks in physical intimacy or slice-of-life authenticity, Bahrani and his performers amaze with their attunement to the countless emotional angles in every word and gesture on-screen. It's one of those rare films that invites us to think about the way the characters think, to ponder their anxieties, speculate on their hopes, and confront their fears.