Very loosely inspired by his prior documentary about an Afghani guide to Western journalists (2009’s “Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi”), Ian Olds’ “The Fixer” is a culture-clash drama in which an exotic new arrival quickly becomes enmeshed in the less savory undersides of a rural Northern California town. Though less overtly comedic, this insinuatingly low-key tale may for some recall “Inherent Vice,” as it’s similarly a droll ostensible mystery whose investigation (let alone resolution) takes a back seat to the revealing eccentricities of characters and communities encountered en route. Presence of James Franco and Melissa Leo in supporting roles should boost prospects for a movie with considerable offbeat appeal, if few obvious commercial angles.
While the titular subject of Olds’ docu was kidnapped and ultimately executed by the Taliban for abetting foreign media, here fictive Osman (Dominic Rains) has made it out alive. Aspiring to become a professional journalist himself, he’s secured an asylum-status U.S. visa thanks to Gabe (James Oliver Wheatley), the American reporter still covering his conflict-torn homeland. He’s welcomed by the latter’s weary local-cop mom Gloria (Leo), who provides a place to stay. But the job he thought he had with this coastal hippie-redneck hamlet’s newspaper turns out to be illusory; all they can offer is fifty bucks a week to write up the “police blotter” report.
It’s a consolation-prize beat Osman takes with naive seriousness, thinking he can somehow parlay sleuthing around this hinterland (where his only means of transport is hitching rides, or borrowing a bicycle) into a real career. His skills as a “fixer” — accustomed to empathetically infiltrating, extracting intel from and smoothing communication between opposing sides in the dangerous idealogical minefield of Afghanistan — make him confident he can penetrate the hidden corners of this seemingly simple, bucolic community.
His investigative impulses kick in once a shady local figure is found dead by the side of the road. Though this demise may be accidental, suspicion immediately falls on Lindsay (Franco), a short-tempered reliable screwup who had a grudge against the victim. But Osman, who has bonded with Lindsay after a bad initial encounter, hopes he can absolve his new friend.
That quest is complicated by numerous factors, all highlighting Osman’s outsider status. Used to dealing with life-or-death situations, he’s hapless at grasping the moral grey zones, contradictions and small deceptions taken for granted in this peculiar community. There may seem a world of difference between the orbits of wealthy New Age guru/actor type Carl (Tim Kniffin) — whose much younger “open relationship” girlfriend Sandra (Rachel Brosnahan) aims seduction beams at Osman — and unruly, meth-labby alleged crime family the Sokurov Brothers (its patriarch played by Thomas Jay Ryan). But in fact there’s considerable overlap, as underlined in successive climactic party scenes where both milieus prove to have plentiful good and bad points.The complex loyalties at work in each are simply unlike anything our protagonist has experienced before, though he thought he’d “seen it all.” Toward the end, one resident sums up the confounding prevailing logic by telling him “Here, everything’s always forgiven.” Even murder, sometimes.
While Olds and Paul Felten’s screenplay requires some significant credulity leaps, “The Fixer” is flavorsome, engaging and unpredictable enough that one can give those gaps a pass, at least to an extent. Rains makes Osman so likable we accept his dubious decisions as natural consequences of his earnest, intelligent curiosity about a completely foreign environ.
Leo is fine in one of her patented working-class plow-horse roles, though it would’ve been nice to gain more understanding about her evidently strained relationship with Gabe. Franco (whose “General Hospital” stint was the subject of Olds’ experimental, quasi-narrative feature “Francophilia”) is entertaining as a patchouli-scented variation on his “Spring Breakers” character, though Lindsay disappears from the narrative for a long stretch. Support turns are astutely delivered, their ambiguities apt for a scenario in which we’re meant to share Osman’s bafflement over a community whose sleepy surface masks unknowable layers beneath.
Assembly is smart on all levels, with Adam Newport-Berra’s widescreen lensing and Jim McHugh’s score particularly aiding the slippery, evocative atmosphere.