Co-writer/director Ramin Bahrani gets the plot out of the way in the first minute of Goodbye Solo. An elderly man, William (Red West), sits in the backseat of a taxicab in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He offers the young Senegalese driver, Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane), a thousand dollars to take him to Blowing Rock on October 20, where he will kill himself. Thus the story begins.
Why Blowing Rock? Why October 20? A man who wants to die can do so on a whim. To ask a cab driver to take you a hundred miles west on that date is to make a point of it. The film offers some details. Maybe they’re important, maybe they’re not. Bahrani is wise not to make a film about why William is suicidal. This is not a story about reason. It’s about compassion and connection.
It is Solo’s nature to want to help. He asks the dispatcher to give him all of William’s fares. William is cold and gruff, barks curses. He would prefer never to speak or be spoken to, but Solo is relentless; if they develop a friendship, it’s more a function of erosion than affection. Solo speaks quickly and frequently and wears a big, convivial grin. He pulls William into his orbit with great insistence; early in the film, William ends up sleeping on Solo’s couch, and neither he nor the audience is quite sure how he ended up there. That’s Solo. He’s friend enough for the both of them.
Will this be the story of how Solo saves William’s life, or the story of how William dies? That is the mystery that drives the narrative. Solo keeps time by counting the days on his calendar, and so does Bahrani, who places this periodic emphasis on time to give us a sense of encroaching dread. There comes a moment where Solo drags his finger along the October grid and we realize that the 20th is tomorrow. One way or another, time’s up.
Bahrani pays special attention to faces, and what faces they are! Sy Savane has a warm, animated countenance. It’s bright with enthusiasm and a joy that can’t help but rub off on you. But it shifts the further and further William pulls away. The eyes redden. The expression stills. Sorrow overcomes him. Bahrani needs only hold a shot of him to fill us with emotion. West, who in his career has been a driver, songwriter, and bodyguard for Elvis Presley as well as a Hollywood stuntman, is cragged, weathered. His eyes hang sullenly. He plays a cagey man who gives away little of his thoughts or feelings, but in the lines of his face we can read limitless sadness, regret, weariness. We’re never told why William wants to die, but West’s visage is so wordlessly eloquent that we scarcely need to ask.
Perhaps the film’s greatest scene comes during a climactic moment whose circumstances I will not reveal. The camera cuts between the two actors, and not a word is spoken, but there is a world of feeling communicated between their faces. Both performances are worthy of Oscar nominations.
Only Sy Savane and West are trained actors. They were also the only actors privy to the entire screenplay while filming. Actors in the supporting roles knew only their scenes, and thus ascertained little of the story. Perhaps this is why a movie theater employee appears so genuinely befuddled in a key scene, and why 9-year-old Diana Franco Galindo, as Solo’s stepdaughter Alex, is so natural and unaffected even during the film’s most potent passages. The director has used improvisation and non-professional actors in his previous films. Here the effect is seamless.
This is only 34-year-old Bahrani’s third feature film and his first set outside of New York City. I have previously seen only his second film, Chop Shop, about poor children living and working at the titular auto repair establishment in the borough of Queens. I admired the film, but found it dry. It left me unprepared for the wallop of Goodbye Solo, which has a light, minimalist touch, but resounds. Still waters run deep.