To call “Something in the Way” masturbatory would be a literal plot description, though it applies equally to helmer-scribe Teddy Soeriaatmadja’s affected portrayal of a Jakarta taxi driver screwed up by sexual frustration and misguided piety. Take away the two attractive leads’ solidly grounded perfs and the seamy, atmospheric Southeast Asian urban setting, and the yarn is basically a fulsome homage to Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver.” Nevertheless, it’s partly redeemed by a polished visual style and a sensuous but never leering eye for the female form. Soeriaatmadja claims censorship issues will hinder a domestic release, but festivals will fall for it.
The film puts the goods right out there in the opening scene, in which taxi driver Ahmad (Reza Rahadian) suffers onanism interruptus when a customer hops into his car. He turns on the TV to watch porn as soon as he returns to his apartment, which is cluttered with X-rated DVDs. The provocative, playful nature of these scenes quickly becomes meh when Ahmad is shown frenzily pleasuring himself at every available space and opportunity, with the camera registering no change in his psychological or emotional state.
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When Ahmad’s boss (Daniel Rudy) berates him for not bringing in enough business, he drives to the red-light district in search of fares, but ends up gawking at streetwalkers instead. One night, he picks up a married man and a sex-worker (Ratu Felisha) who, incidentally, is Ahmad’s neighbor. She warms to him when he expresses his empathy for her occupational hazards, resulting in a one-night stand. However, Ahmad’s obsession with her and his eventual confrontation with her pimp (Verdi Solaiman) pans out in too-predictable fashion; it’s clear to all involved that a fairy-tale ending is not in the works. Chapters titled “Ahmad,” “Change” and “Righteousness” carve up the narrative, spelling out the themes even more loudly.
This lack of subtlety accounts for the fact that although Soeriaatmadja has five pics under his belt, his screenplay feels like the work of a tyro filmmaker. Clearly the writer-helmer seriously intends to depict Ahmad’s sexual fixation as stemming not only from loneliness and social disaffection, but also from his twisted interpretation of Islamic tenets forbidding premarital sex — a message hammered home rather heavily, as nearly every sleazy act is followed by a cut to Ahmad listening to a religious sermon on continence. When an imam elucidates the meaning of “jihad,” there’s little doubt as to what’s taking shape in Ahmad’s mind.
More incisive is the way Soeriaatmadja contrasts Ahmad’s naive idealism about love against the sexual hypocrisy and misogyny of the men around him, from the smutty conversations of Ahmad’s co-workers to the way sex workers are abused physically and verbally by their clients.
The two leads convey a palpable presence. Sultry and silent, Rahadian (“The Mirror Never Lies”) conveys rapt intensity mostly with his eyes, his compulsive behavior always suggesting desperation rather than lust; however, it’s hard to imagine an actor this attractive not scoring with women more often than he does. Felisha brings a hard edge to her battered-woman role, disdaining pity and appearing radiantly beautiful even in degrading situations. Her image echoes that of the harried yet dignified transexual sex worker in Soeriaatmadja’s much more honest and touching prior work, last year’s “Lovely Man.”
Notwithstanding the proliferation of tight handheld shots, lenser Ical Tanjung’s compositions are always skillfully framed and make use of intriguing angles, especially inside the taxi, with Ahmad’s face reflected in rear-view mirrors. The varied lighting finds moody contrasts in scenes set predominantly at night. Bobby Surjadi’s simple piano score lends tenderness to sordid moments, but the choice of Bach’s “Air on the G String” at the end is uninspired.