A hard and cutting jewel compressed from the stuff of life, writer-director Takeshi Fukunaga’s accomplished feature debut follows Cisco (Bishop Blay), a Liberian rubber “tapper,” from the deprivations of his homeland, where he has disappointed his family by participating in a disastrous strike, to the milk and honey of this one, which — wouldn’t you know it? — ain’t everything Cisco had hoped for.
The film’s first half holds to the tenets of tasteful retro neorealism, tracking Cisco and his co-workers as they tap their trees, hold their meetings, and face the truth of their bosses’ power. Only when a desperate Cisco lights out for New York does Out of My Hand become stranger and more wild, especially in a nasty confrontation shot from underneath a taxi. Cisco, now a cabdriver, is recognized by Jacob (David Roberts), a Liberian who demands — as Cisco searches the pavement for his missing car — that Cisco remember the terrors that both perpetrated years ago and a world away, as child soldiers in Liberia’s civil wars.
In the American scenes, Fukunaga’s approach turns subjective, even impressionistic, bathing an alienated Cisco in harsh blue and yellow city lights, and the scenes are cut without clear indications of how much time has passed. In most films, this migrant-life and sins-of-the-past stuff might play as familiar melodrama, but here the story spins out in painful directions that feel surprising yet inevitable — Cisco comes to feel like someone you’ve gotten to know, not a character whose story you’re passively watching.
The ending smartly bookends the beginning: Here is a man toiling in darkness, possibly lost, only haphazardly lighting his own way. Sadly, real-life tragedy stamps the film, too: Cinematographer Ryo Murakami, who shot the starkly beautiful Liberian scenes, contracted malaria while making the film and did not survive. His work will endure.
Out of My Hand
Written and directed by Takeshi Fukunaga
Opens November 13, IFC Center