Restless City is one of the sexiest and most visually accomplished directorial debuts in recent memory. Director Andrew Dosunmu has a breathtaking eye for compositions that evoke the simultaneous mystery, splendor, and loneliness of life in a bustling community. A scene of young, predominantly Senegalese immigrants dancing in a crowded New York City club is conveyed in a rapturous, exquisitely succinct collection of shots that revel in the intoxication of fleeting release from the duties and pressures of the daily grind. Figures move to the pulsating music as lights illuminate hats, sunglasses, and female curves. Another image, of a guy’s fist clinched in the foreground as he gazes at a gorgeous prostitute’s long legs, tells us in just a few beats everything we need to know about the man’s warring impulses of lust and judgment. On a formal level, Restless City is an expressive and deeply felt collection of sequences structured around the theme of the isolation of a population of immigrants living in New York.
But Eugene Gussenhoven’s script simply isn’t in the same league as the images that Dosunmu and the gifted cinematographer Bradford Young have fashioned. Below the confident filmmaking is a disappointingly self-pitying and sexist noir fantasy of a struggling and generally morally pure artist who instantly falls for a prostitute and sets about saving her from her profession. As you’d expect, the hooker falls for the man in return, spurring the wrath of a local kingpin who retaliates in the usual way.
At times, Restless City resembles other films, such as Breathless and Mona Lisa, that have used a consciously familiar guy-girl-gun scenario as an entry point into an exploration of larger cultural concerns, but Dosunmu lacks Jean-Luc Godard and Neil Jordan’s sense of freedom and play. Where those films varied in tone to often volatile extremes, Dosunmu maintains a deadening, self-seriously melancholic atmosphere that’s too heavy and humorless for a scenario this well-worn. Godard and Jordan, among many others, managed to satirize and empathize with their heroes in almost equal measures, but Dosunmu doesn’t seem to know that his protagonist, Djbirl (the fatally inexpressive Sy Alassane), from what we see, is a judgmental prig who should count himself lucky to be steering Trini’s (Sky Grey) eyes his way. Dosunmu is already a stylist to watch, but you know he hasn’t quite mastered the niceties of tone and nuance when you find yourself almost—save for one brutal scene—damn near sympathizing with the kingpin. At least the crook appreciates what he wants and knows how to get it.