With two powerhouse performances, this film is a joyful emotional success that is a pleasure to watch again and again. It doesn’t preach nor dictate. It tells the story of these two men and their relationship and lets the emotions flow. The direction offers little beyond getting out of the lead actors’ way as they deliver A+ work.
The film follows Viggo Mortensen as Tony “Lip” Vallelonga a brutal con artist and bouncer from the Bronx who takes a job driving and protecting Dr. Don Shirley on his concert tour of the south in the early 1960’s. The fastidious and proper Dr. Shirley is black and insists on touring the Deep South.
Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen give two of the best and most effective performances of the year. Mortensen is given top billing, but this movie is a duet. Each performance sings in perfect harmony. They share the screen and share the weight. Mortensen plays Tony Lip a character who could easily just be a big Italian from the Bronx cliche, but Mortensen gives him layers and shading. He feels true and honest in every moment. He has grounded this big lug in truth and soul. The way he looks at his wife and doesn’t look at the black man in his backseat. The way he fishes a cigarette out of pack. The way he shrugs and the way he stares. His every movement is motivated and genuine. He nails every detail.
Mahershala Ali is the one that breaks the hearts. He has moments in this film that are truly unforgettable. They live on in the heart. He is such a lonely and tragic figure. The real Dr. Shirley was a black man who wanted to play classic piano in a world that expected him to play black music. Ali brings a deep alienation and isolation to Shirley. There is a moment when Dr. Shirley thinks Tony is leaving him. He pleads with Tony with only his eyes, trying to protect his dignity and unwilling to admit that he is afraid. Mahershala is able to communicate so much with that look. The camera lingers on that face, and the editor lets the moment linger. It creates a haunting and heartbreaking image that earns an entire letter grade for the movie.
The direction is purely objective. In modern cinema when shots and whole movies exist to create a subjective experience of exactly what the characters are going through, the direction here tries to get out of the way and simply capture the moments. It’s a very old fashioned style that doesn’t tell a story so much as seek to get out of its way. This works brilliantly in moments like the one described above, however some moments needed a little extra push. They land fine, but they could have really hit a home run. One such moment is a scene in a bar when Dr. Shirley is being harassed and essentially held hostage. Tony is bargaining with the racists and the scene could have carried a deep intensity and tension, but it was shot in only a couple of medium shots and cuts back and forth to the dialogue. A few directorial flourishes could have made that scene much more gripping while still retaining the tone of the film.
The story itself is fantastic. The script combines solid dialogue with great moments of visual storytelling. There isn’t enough attention paid in modern film to moments without dialogue. One great one comes early when Tony sees two black workmen drinking lemonade in his kitchen. Once they leave he stares at the glasses they used and after considering the glasses throws them in the trash. It’s a great moment. It tells so much about him. These little moments are peppered throughout the movie and feel very fresh.
Finally, some concern has been raised over the films depiction of race relations. People have criticized it as being over simplified or saccharine. It is not either of those things. It embraces certain cliches sure, but the film genuinely isn’t about curing racism. It is about two men from different lives challenging one another to break free from their self imposed constraints and live life a little bit more freely. It’s about these two men and this particular trip. It works and is absolutely my cup of tea. – A-