Ian Olds’s 2009 documentary Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi took the tragic death of the title figure to shine a valuable light on “fixers” like him: locals hired by foreign journalists to not only act as a translator for them, but help them gain access to interview subjects and gather information for news stories. Now, with his debut fiction feature The Fixer, Olds tries to imagine what life might be like for a fixer who actually got out of a war-torn area and relocated to the United States—and through the mystery narrative he devises, he draws some rather complicated conclusions.
The fixer here is Osman (Dominic Rains), an Afghan man who’s trying to begin a new life in a small Northern California town after fleeing his more tumultuous life back home. As one might expect, however, the transition is far from easy. Despite his initial hopes for a job as a reporter, the local paper only has enough in their budget to pay him for daily police-blotter reports; he feels further stymied by the relative sleepiness of this town compared to his more unpredictable lifestyle in Afghanistan.
Osman finally finds some excitement, though, when he spends more time with Lindsay (James Franco), a live-wire hot-tub craftsman who owes some debts to the Sokurovs, a family of local ne’er-do-wells. And when Lindsay suddenly disappears, Osman is on the case, defying his American host’s (Melissa Leo) pleas for him to stay out of it, and uncovering local corruption in the process.
The Fixer, then, is a standard backwoods noir tale given a topical twist. But that twist—Osman’s mixed feelings about his exile from his home country—is enough to elevate the film beyond its familiar procedural trappings. Osman’s quest to find Lindsay is more than just about this one person; it’s also his attempt to understand this unfamiliar American culture, a deeper mystery illustrated by Sandra (Rachel Brosnahan), a free-spirited artist who carries on an open relationship with her boyfriend, much to Osman’s confusion.
But much as there are inevitable cultural limits in an American journalist’s attempts to try to understand a foreign culture, Osman discovers his own limits in penetrating American culture, especially one as guarded as the secretive culture in this small town. The melancholic final moments of the film find him not only finally understanding such limits, but also wondering if maybe he would have been happier in Afghanistan, for all of its instability.
The Tribeca Film Festival runs from April 13—24.