The Soloist
Directed by Joe Wright
Dreamworks SKG

British director Joe Wright’s first two films—Pride and Prejudice (2005) and Atonement (2007)—were stunning. The Soloist (2009), is even better. In each of these films, all based on books, Wright’s visual imagination transforms a verbal narrative into unforgettable—in Wright’s own words—“image and sequence.”

Wright’s artistic signature is the long tracking shot, using a steadicam. In a five-minute scene in Atonement featuring one thousand extras, horses, and vehicles on a beach—plus digital ships—Wright recreates the desperation of retreating British troops at Dunkirk during World War II. As the steadicam tracks the horror-scape in one prolonged, panoramic swoop, Wright and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey offer the nightmare of Dunkirk as a great artist might dream it (not the you-are-there virtual reality of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan). Similar shots in Pride and Prejudice and The Soloist testify to Wright’s powerful visual creativity.

Wright sees himself in the tradition of Sir David Lean whose mise en scène in movies such as Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago featured awesome spectacles, overflowing with humanity. Like Lean, Wright is dyslexic and experiences the disorder not as limitation but as the crucible of his filmmaking style, which favors formal elements over plot. The extraordinary Dunkirk scene was taken from a few pages in Ian McEwan’s taut psychological novel of guilt, but Wright’s rendering was never an effort to serve McEwan’s literary sensibility. Wright, McGarvey, and other members of the team brainstormed for days about the composition and the content of that sequence, which expended much of their budget in one day of shooting. Devoted McEwan readers, like the Austenites who worship every word of Pride and Prejudice, found fault with Wright’s broad-stroke visual production. But the filmmakers turned McEwan’s text into their own haunting images, or, images and sequence.

The Soloist, Wright’s Hollywood debut, is an amazingly beautiful and inventive visual creation and even more self-consciously cinema as fine art. Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx provide inspired and convincing performances as, respectively, Steve Lopez, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, and Nathaniel Ayers, a homeless and mentally ill one-time musical prodigy. Beethoven’s soaring music adds intensity.

In one scene, Ayers, along with Lopez, is finally able to sit quietly in a concert hall and listen to the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra play Beethoven’s Third Symphony. The camera focuses first on Ayers’s ecstatic face, and soon we participate in his experience, portrayed as a light show. Some critics dismissed the scene as clichéd, like Disney’s Fantasia, but I found it transcendent; Beethoven and Wright lifted Ayers, Lopez, and me out of our isolated selves into a moment of shared synesthetic bliss.

Based on a true story, The Soloist benefits from a compelling screenplay by Susannah Grant (In Her Shoes, Erin Brockovich) . The portrait of severe chronic mental illness, a product of the fine writing and Foxx’s acumen, is also more realistic than anything we have seen in such ballyhooed and prize-winning films as A Beautiful Mind and Shine. Moreover, along with its truthful study of schizophrenia, The Soloist confronts us with the sad facts about how America cares for the mentally ill. The Dunkirk-scene equivalent in The Soloist is a Dantesque panorama of homeless, mentally ill men and women on the streets of Los Angeles at night. They are menacing, they are mad, they are stoned, they are terrified, they are victimized, they are suffering, and most of them, like Ayers, are black. This, of course, is not a Hollywood fantasy: there are tens of thousands of homeless people in Los Angeles, many mentally ill and drug-addicted. In Wright’s landscape, the horror of their lives foregrounds a tattered American flag, an emblem of national shame.

The film departs from the book (and real life) in intriguing ways, but the relationship between Lopez and Ayers lies at the heart of both. The book emerged from a series of columns that Lopez wrote about Ayers, and the screenplay self-consciously dramatizes the psychological tension between the columnist’s exploitation of Ayers to get a story, and his altruistic wish to help. Downey inhabits a self-centered character brilliantly, and that aspect of Lopez’s personality plays a defining role in the stormy relationship that emerges between the two men. Grant’s Lopez is a decent guy, but too self-centered and preoccupied with his writing to sustain his obligations to others. In the film, Lopez and his wife (Cathering Keener) have divorced over this issue, extending the columnist’s egotism beyond, perhaps, its real-life boundaries. The nonfiction Mr. and Mrs. Lopez are still married.

In another departure from the book, the film’s Ayers plays cello. In reality, his specialty was the bass, an instrument that can be heard in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony but is much more strongly associated with African-American musical traditions and African-American artists. By making his instrument the cello, Grant and Wright have also made Ayers a black child chosen by his talent to follow in the footsteps of Jacqueline du Pré and Yo Yo Ma. One thinks of William Blake’s “The Little Black Boy”: “And I am black, but O! my soul is white. / White as an angel is the English child.” This “angel”—and the idea of racial disorientation and isolation—generates much of the emotional power of the film as it builds on Ayers’s real-life estrangement from his family and the isolating delusions of his illness, which took him from Juilliard to the streets of Los Angeles.

The Soloist asks and answers the question of how such a madman, fully retreated into his own world of delusions and obsessions, would relate to another human being’s efforts to help. Freud thought that schizophrenics such as Nathaniel Ayers could not form the kind of transference relationship with the analyst that could be interpreted, and therefore they could not be cured. Subsequently, analysts who worked with schizophrenic patients came to understand that transferences occurred, once one got past their withdrawal, but the transferences were so volatile, so intense, and so real to the patient that one broke through that barrier at one’s own psychological peril. In the film Lopez’s acts of kindness as he tries to help Ayers out of his withdrawal and back to his music produce just this kind of extreme transference. Ayers announces that “Steve Lopez is my God” and he means it. And when Lopez tries to distance himself from Ayers and have him committed for involuntary treatment, Ayers’s rage explodes with murderous threats.

This is the deep truth of psychotic ambivalence, unsettling in film as it is in life. It is what wears out people who are in close relationships with those who have chronic psychotic disorders. The racial identities of the two men add levels of complication in their love-hate relationship. And there is no clear resolution. No solid friendship emerges between them—only a promise, a possibility. The promise is based on Ayers’s love of Beethoven, that romantic God of Western civilization. Wright offers us that love, the undefeated and resurrectable white soul of this homeless mad black man, as the grounds for reconciliation. Politically correct viewers have every reason to worry.