Perhaps more than anything else, To Live and Die and Live is an unexpected ode to the city of Detroit. Not many films have been shot there, and certainly none has shown off the New Detroit as glamorously and impressively as Qasim Basir has done in his fourth feature that just debuted in the Next section at the Sundance Film Festival; the alluring architecture and vibes make you want to schedule a trip at once. Other than that, this is, to a significant degree, a hang-out film, featuring a film director central character at sixes and sevens about what to do next — you could generously call it Basir’s 8 ½.
Hanging out is certainly what Muhammad (Amin Joseph) does most of the time. Ostensibly he’s come back to town from L.A. due to the death of his stepfather, and he dutifully attends the funeral. But the smooth-talking young man spends more screen time at late-night clubs and, for two nights in a row, makes time with sexy dancer Asia (Skye P. Marshall), even though he remains in something of a sullen funk. The film’s first half-hour is mostly devoted to these two characters, but mainly to Muhammad, who offers up precious little about his life and for a good while remains an active mood-shifter of unknown qualities or talents. And he does like his blow.
This is an impressionistic film to a significant degree, filled with characters we see, sometimes hear but barely get to know. Muhammad and Asia mess around, but only up to a certain point; something’s eating at him and he’s easily distracted. The man walks, walks and walks, clearly thinking about things but rarely offering up what’s on his mind. He’s looking for something but probably doesn’t know what that something is until he finds it.
Furthering this impressionistic, mostly nocturnal approach are the jumpy cutting and fleeting nature of his Muhammad’s encounters. Day or night, there’s almost always someone around meet and hang with, although he increasingly spends time with Asia, who has a rather startling physical issue that abruptly makes an appearance toward the end.
The only times Muhammad truly appears to enjoy life is with Asia, who seems highly sensitive to the fact that life is short and one should enjoy it as much as one can. In the role, Marshall is vibrant and compulsively switched on and one hopes that she can find more roles and films in which her tremendous energy can be productively channeled.
Taking a cue from the leading man, the film is emphatically moody, led by the characters in general and Muhammad in particular; one gets the sense that the filmmaker’s frame of mind is very much that of the central character, who appears monumentally uncertain about what comes next after a run of youthful action.
Stylistically, To Live and Die and Live is cut down to the bone, with the essential action being conveyed but with a vital terseness that both frustrates and keeps you on your toes. Both the filmmaker and the leading character seem to have used the occasion to take stock of their lives while they’re still young enough to do what the film’s title would suggest — to live well, up their game and do what they most want to do.
And, yes, the film truly does make Detroit better than it ever has for a century, at least in the movies.
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