‘The Fixer’: Tribeca Review

Dominic Rains plays an Afghan journalist trying to make sense of a small California town.

A fish-out-of-water mystery in a place where the sinister and the merely odd can be hard to tell apart, Ian Olds’s The Fixer follows an Afghan refugee whose need to engage with his new California home might get him killed. A fiction inspired by a doc about a similar character Olds brought to Tribeca in 2009, this picture will naturally draw more attention thanks to a cast including James Franco and Melissa Leo; it is magnetic Iranian-American actor Dominic Rains, though, who is the star.

Rains plays Osman, who worked in Afghanistan war zones as a fixer for reporter Gabe (James Oliver Wheatley) until he was able to secure asylum in the States. Gabe sent him to stay with his mother Gloria (Leo), a small-town police officer, and arranged a meeting with the local newspaper, which results in Osman getting a work-for-peanuts job writing the police blotter.

The Bottom Line

An offbeat mystery whose protagonist’s war-zone past is just part of the picture.

Disappointed but undaunted, Osman decides he will use this small outlet as an excuse to immerse himself in the community; his curiosity pushes him to befriend an unstable local named Lindsay (Franco) who promises to show him where the real stuff goes down in these parts.

For such a sketchy guy, Lindsay has a surprising familiarity with journalism — he critiques the prose style of the last writer to work the blotter beat, and cautions Osman when he makes remarks that are “not for attribution.” But he does have an in with those Osman will likely need to write about soon, like a clan of bad-news types in the backwoods led by Dmitri Sokurov (Thomas Jay Ryan). On one of the pair’s fact-finding excursions, some Sokurov goons try to attack them. Soon after, one of those men is found dead, and Lindsay has disappeared.

Osman’s time in war zones has convinced him that, in the aftermath of horror, “a hole has opened in the earth” that can sometimes expose truths not seen in daily life. He searches for the truth here — partly for his own sake and partly out of obligation to his new friend — but is simultaneously drawn into another social scene. He’s attracted to a young actress (Rachel Brosnahan) who studies in the woods with an older mentor (Tim Kniffin) and an unusual troupe of fellow thespians.

Out of place both here and with the fringe-dwellers he met with Lindsay, Osman comes to feel that he’s “doing it wrong” as he pursues the secrets of a community so foreign to him. We’re as adrift as he is, with Olds and his cast sending little social cues we don’t understand. (As with Gloria, who’s welcoming one moment and evasive the next.) But Rains, who was given an acting award by the Tribeca jury, brings such a sense of purpose to the part that the movie never goes slack. It’s a charismatic performance that makes learning Lindsay’s whereabouts seem irrelevant compared to Osman’s need to belong in a place he has no good reason to be, even as he sublimates his longing for a home he can no longer return to.

Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (U.S. Narrative Competition)
Production company: ACE Productions
Cast: Dominic Rains, Melissa Leo, James Franco, Rachel Brosnahan, Tim Kniffin, Thomas Jay Ryan
Director: Ian Olds
Screenwriters: Paul Felten, Ian Olds
Producers: Caroline von Kuhn, Jennifer Glynn
Executive producers: George Rush, Michael Roiff, Lisa Kleiner Chanoff, Gia Walsh, Kara Baker, Gardner Grout, Mary Regency Boies, Robert Afshar, Alex Witherill, Eric Schultz, James Franco, Vince Jolivette
Director of photography: Adam Newport-Berra
Production designer: Caity Birmingham
Costume designer: Phoenix Mellow
Editor: Scott Cummings, Joe Murphy, Ian Olds
Composer: Jim McHugh
Casting director: Adrienne Stern   
Sales: CAA

Not rated, 103 minutes