Two weeks ago I saw, “Goodbye Solo” an extraordinary independent film on BBC i-player by the Iranian-American director Ramin Bahrani. In 2008 it won the international film critic's FIPRESCI award for best film at the Venice Film Festival.
Essentially a two-hander it tells the story of an unexpected friendship that forms between Solo, (Souléymane Sy Savanéa) a Senegalese cab driver and William,(Red West) an old man who catches his cab one evening. The film is set in Winston Salem North Carolina, a region hitherto unknown to me, which seems blessed with some magnificent countryside. During their first cab ride to his apartment, William books Solo for another in a month’s time when he intends to make a one way journey to Blowing Rock, a rocky outcrop above a gorge. Blowing Rock it seems is famous for the fact that objects hurled from it fly up into the air instead. It gradually dawns on Solo that William intends to commit suicide at the spot. He therefore resolves to persuade him that life is worth living.
As Solo becomes more involved in William’s life he realises that the young male cashier at the local cinema is either William’s son or grandson, not that the youth has any idea who William is. The days pass and William methodically begins to wind up his affairs. When the day of the cab ride to Blowing Rock arrives Solo arranges matter so that he is William’s driver and spends the whole night in the car park outside William’s motel room, hoping he will have a change of heart.
As a last desperate measure Solo persuades William to allow his young step-daughter Alice to join them on the ride as he has seen in William’s diary how he admires the bright young girl and believes that her youthful vitality will be dissuade William from his path.
At Blowing Rock the trio climb part way up. Solo throws a last heartfelt glance at William before taking Alice to buy an ice cream. The acting and the screenplay are so superb the viewer is left with no idea whether William will leap to his death or whether he will be waiting for them by the taxi.
Having bought the ice-cream Solo and Alice climb up to Blowing Rock. There is no one else there. I am sure the film crew would not risk the life of their lead actor but I for one had vertigo just looking at Solo battling the strong winds on the rocks in an effort to remain upright.
After I saw the film I discovered that the actor who played Solo had been an air steward, which is how he arrived in America. That element of his real life was amusingly incorporated into his background story for the film. Red West who played William had been boyhood friends with Elvis Presley and had even been his bodyguard at one stage.
The whole premise of the film seems very gloomy and I almost switched off 10 minutes in. I am glad I persevered. Solo is a beautiful little film with superb acting from both leads. I admired the way the film did not opt for a sentimental ending. From Solo’s friendship with William came a deep respect for his personal choices, even suicide, despite his genuine regret that William should have elected to end his life.
There was one scene in the film that made me stop the film and play it back again. As William unlocks the door of the motel room in which he will spend his final night, I noticed the door number. It is exactly the same as my own three digit house number. There the coincidences end other than for one. Unlike Red West I never knew Elvis but I almost died on exactly the same day he did. In retrospect, I often wonder who my friend Cristobel, an Elvis fan, would have mourned more for: Elvis or me. If it had been Elvis that would have made her “nothin’ but a hound dog!”