Like Qasim Basir’s last feature, “A Boy. A Girl. A Dream,” his new “To Live & Die and Live” is a questing mood piece whose characters roam a city’s highlife in a fruitless search for inner peace. Here the setting is Detroit, but the protagonist a successful filmmaker taking a forced yet needed sabbatical from the pressures of that prior film’s Los Angeles. The issues he’s dragged with him are hardly alleviated by this return to home turf, however.
As before, the writer-director’s elliptical narrative approach leaves a lot of unanswered questions. But the frustration they generate is again outweighed by the insight afforded into upwardly mobile (and in this case Muslim) African American communities, as well as the melancholy poetical drift of his cinematic style.
Burly, bearded Muhammad Abdullah (Amin Joseph) is a prodigal son whose return to Motor City should be a victory lap. After all, in the eyes of everyone left behind, he’s waltzed right through the “golden doors” of Hollywood, his career enviously followed. But he arrives jittery and furtive for reasons beyond the sad occasion that’s pulled him back after a long absence: The funeral of his father, a local construction magnate. Rather than heading straight to the somewhat conditional embrace of his mother (Jeryll Prescott) and siblings, he dives from the airport into a rather grim pursuit of pleasure, brushing off old friends’ surprised welcome amid a blur of cocaine and alcohol. En route, he picks up Asia (Skype P. Marshall), a hard-boiled beauty who’s willing enough, but not about to passively accept his rather brusque attitude.
She’s already walked out on him — though she’ll be back — by the morning-after time he makes it to the funeral home, where family members duly note his distracted air and trembling hands. It’s a tense reunion rendered stranger by introduction to stepsister Lisa (Dana Gourrier), whose East Coast family the patriarch abandoned long ago for his life’s do-over in Detroit. A working-class struggler, she sees in these newly-met half-siblings a spoiled privilege she was cheated out of.
What Muhammad sees is a city that has transformed since he was last here — it’s full of new buildings and businesses, many of which his father had a hand in. Yet the appearance of prosperity is deceptive, even at home. Dad evidently left a financial mess of debts and debtors behind that business partner Kevin (Omari Hardwick) now expects our hero to sort out. And while they’d never openly admit it, immediate family members also figure the big Hollywood director’s checkbook will cover all their own needs. For his part, Muhammad is too proud not to accept the burden. It’s only through overheard phone calls that we realize he himself is on very shaky ground, his credit overextended, his latest movie apparently in trouble.
He’s a hot mess, whether drunkenly embarrassing himself while addressing a Wayne State class of film students, or stomping out on an AA meeting one sister (Maryam Basir) tricks him into attending. He’s periodically drawn toward the mosque, but for the moment seems beyond spiritual redemption. He also spies possible rescue in the sexy, spiky, wary form of Asia (“Like the continent,” she introduces herself). As it turns out, however, her own problems are too big for there to be any allure in taking on his.
There’s a lot going on here, though “To Live” is cagey in offering the fleshed-out backstories and subsidiary characters that might render so many intriguing issues more vivid. We never even get a hint just what Muhammad’s films are like (or about), despite their apparent fame. When relatives insist on watching his latest’s rough cut, then offer very faint praise afterward, we’re given no clue what they reacted against. Punchily conceived scenes like one in which he negligently crashes his rental car, then makes someone else take the blame once police arrive, would be yet stronger if we had a clearer sense of the interpersonal power dynamics at play.
Nonetheless, Basir keeps us involved in this inebriate antihero’s water-treading, using Detroit as a kind of falsely glittering aquarium — all subterranean neon lights and sleek newness, though evidence of past miseries lies just beneath. (A telling late moment has Muhammad visiting a site he once worked with his father long ago, where a crack pipe can still be found in the debris.)
The actors bring considerable charisma to fill out roles you might wish were less sparsely detailed in the writing. The director’s own cinematography has a dreamlike fluidity, while a diverse soundtrack keeps returning to the mournful solo cello that dominates Maxime Lacoste-Lebuis aka Max LL’s original score.
For all its tastefully exasperating gaps in character and storytelling specifics, “To Live & Die and Live” still has a persuasive overall vision, one that holds out the possibility of salvation for its hero — and its city — albeit only if history and the toll it still exacts are faced head-on.