The immigrant saga Restless City is winning deserved praise for its stunning visuals, and some understandable gripes about its pokey pace.
The movie is directed by Andrew Dosunmu, a Nigerian fashion photographer who came up through the ranks of the Yves St. Laurent empire, and his eye for the artfully arranged composition is evident in Restless City, the story of a Senegalese New York City street vendor (Sy Alassane) in a dangerous relationship with the girlfriend (Sky Grey) of a local crook.
Restless City is one of a growing number of movies by directors who emphasize visual content at the expense of traditional narrative, and who rebel against the frenetic pace and frantic cutting that dominates contemporary cinema. It's a "movement" that includes Steve McQueen (Shame, Hunger), Nick Refn (Drive), and founder/guru Terrence Malick (Tree of Life).
Restless City has the same mannered staging. Characters pose questions, answers arrive some minutes later. In that span, Jason Statham in Safe could have beaten up 35 people.
If it is a movement, not everyone is a fan. One wag last year proposed filming a staring match between Ryan Gosling of Drive and Michael Fassbender of Shame. Would there be enough film in Hollywood to record this unblinking, wordless encounter?
Is there no middle ground? Well, yes. We note that Restless City is photographed by Bradford Young, who did Pariah, another small-budget independent that looked wonderful, and yet, for all of its obvious budgetary limitations, had the advantage of a canny, quietly riveting story. (Young already rivals Ernest Dickerson for his ability to capture subtle variations in the skin tones of black actors).
Images bring you closer to characters, but so does a well-written screenplay. Dosunmu obviously wants us to empathize with the vulnerable lives of the immigrants, scraping out a living, preyed upon by black-market bosses who both enable and exploit their subsistence lives. Violent episodes explode and recede, but without context and emotional connection, they're sometimes just pictures.