Smoke (1995)

Smoke (1995)

A gorgeous indie gem whose every note is worth inhaling

The Very Best

8.7

Movie

Germany, Japan
English
Comedy, Drama
1995
WAYNE WANG
Ashley Judd, Baxter Harris, Clarice Taylor
112 min

TLDR

The movie equivalent of a fine Cuban cigar.

What it's about

Five chapters in the story of how a smoke shop brought five strangers together.

The take

Like a long, slow drag of a cigar, Smoke is a patient pleasure. Adam Holender’s leisurely lingering camera and the film’s relaxed editing allow us to savor the actors’ performances and the thoughtful script uninterrupted, trusting in their ability to captivate us. And captivate us is exactly what novelist Paul Auster’s screenplay and the film’s superlative ensemble do.

The film kicks off in Auggie Wren’s (Harvey Keitel) Brooklyn smoke shop, where myriad customers linger to chat and unexpected friendships form. The serendipitous network around which Smoke revolves unfurls gradually, like a curling wisp of smoke: Auggie’s patron Paul (William Hurt), a writer's block-struck novelist grieving the violent death of his pregnant wife some years ago, has his life saved by Harold Perrineau’s Rashid, the estranged 17-year-old son of a struggling mechanic (Forest Whitaker). Ashley Judd and Stockard Channing also feature in Auggie’s portion of the film, one of its five loose vignettes (although the film flows much more fluidly than a chapterized structure suggests). Auster’s contemplative, dialogue-driven screenplay — along with the film’s unhurried editing and luxuriating cinematography — make Smoke a gorgeous example of the art of savoring, which is exactly what you want to do with this wonderful movie.

What stands out

Auggie’s Christmas story scene. Smoke is full of unforgettable little grace notes, and it gives each member of its brilliant ensemble their moment to shine, but Keitel’s is the one you finish the movie thinking about — and not just because it happens near the end credits. Across 12 minutes, Keitel’s character shares a bittersweet anecdote with Hurt’s Paul, who’s looking for inspiration for an impending writing assignment. Like us, Holender’s camera can’t resist the mesmeric pull of the actor: we slowly zoom in on his face as he enthralls us with his naturalistically delivered monologue, ending up with a frame filled with just his moving lips. It’s a testament to Keitel’s utterly masterful storytelling ability that 12 minutes don’t feel like enough — you want the moment to go on and on.

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