At 73, the Memphis-born actor, stuntman, former U.S. Marine, and Golden Gloves boxer Red West has the stoic, leathery repose of a barfly on a John Ford or Howard Hawks saloon wall. He doesn’t talk much, and when he does, reveals even less, but there’s an abyss of longing and hurt in every one of his sagging, distant gazes—the sort of face William Blake may have had in mind when he asked, “What is the price of experience?” If West’s name rings a bell, however, it probably has less to do with the more than 80 film and television credits he’s amassed over a half-century in the business than with his off-screen supporting role as friend, driver, and bodyguard to high school classmate Elvis Presley. You can see West in the background of many Presley films, as well as his share of hard-living hillbilly classics (Walking Tall, Road House, et al.). Yet it’s taken until now for him to snag a leading role, and the effect is like finding an old buffalo nickel in the recesses of a dusty bureau—its worth derived not from its assigned value, but from the places it has been and the hands it has passed through.
As William, a taciturn senior who seems to be planning for his final days, West takes center stage in Goodbye Solo, the third feature co-written and directed by Ramin Bahrani, who, at 34, has quietly emerged as one of the major figures in the American independent film scene. Bahrani’s two previous films, the excellent Man Push Cart (2005) and Chop Shop (2007), were tightly wound, location-specific character studies, heavily influenced by the work of the Dardenne brothers, but with their own unfettered eye for immigrant workers living hand-to-mouth on the margins of New York City society. With Goodbye Solo, Bahrani broadens his focus—or at least shifts it south—to his hometown of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. His fundamental interest, however, remains unseen people, or people we might see and never think twice about: the push-cart vendor who sells us our morning coffee; the motherless youth handing out estimates at a Queens body shop; an old man who wishes to die without leaving so much as a trace.
Bahrani possesses a disciplined sense of composition and form, a vision of the world that extends beyond the boundaries of his own navel, and the understanding that it is possible to make films about class and race in this country without pandering to the audience.
What’s consistently remarkable about Bahrani’s work is his steadfast refusal to peddle cheap sentiment or to mine for hope where there is none to be found. His favored locations are urban streets and businesses that emphasize his characters’ sense of displacement, the notion that home is something enjoyed by other people. And while all of his films to date deal, to some extent, with entrepreneurial endeavors, it is not riches that Bahrani’s ragged protagonists seek, but merely a finer quality of rags. In Goodbye Solo, the small-scale social climber is the title character (excellent newcomer Souléymane Sy Savané), a Senegalese-born taxi driver who cruises the nighttime streets of Winston-Salem while training for a future career as a flight attendant, despite the disapproval of his pregnant Mexican wife (Carmen Leyva), who wants him close to home. A chatty Solo picks up William as a fare, but finds his irrepressible good cheer lost on his passenger, who wants only to be dropped off at a nearby movie theater and picked up two hours later. Then William adds one more request: On a specified date in the near future, he wants the cabbie to drive him to the top of a local mountain, Blowing Rock, and leave him there—no questions asked.
In its premise and its many long driving scenes, Goodbye Solo seems guaranteed to earn comparisons to Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami’s 1997 masterpiece Taste of Cherry, in which a similarly suicidal man drives the streets of Tehran seeking a volunteer to throw dirt on his freshly dug grave. But while Bahrani is undoubtedly indebted to Kiarostami—and, as remakes go, this sort of thing is eminently preferable to Hollywood’s countless repackagings—the connection between the two films is less significant than it first appears. Whereas Kiarostami’s driver and passengers remained isolated from one another in both formal and human terms, Goodbye Solo is ultimately about the fragile but profound friendship that forms between these men as Solo becomes, in effect, William’s funerary chauffeur. The more the driver tries to discern some meaningful details about his passenger’s life, the more William retreats. So, too, does Bahrani hold his characters at some enigmatic distance from the audience, refusing to reveal all their secrets, mindful of the foolish notion that it is possible to truly “know” another person after 90 minutes of screen time. Finally, as at the end of every Bahrani film, we arrive at a place where a few poetic images say more than any words or facts possibly could: Dawn breaks, a car disappears into the morning mist, and life goes on.