American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Writer-director John Sayles has been working on the edge of popular acceptance for several decades now, starting with his counterculture drama "Return of the Secaucus Seven" and continuing through an increasingly ambitious, often sprawling series of ensemble dramas, the best of which is probably "Lone Star." Although he's not above the occasional visual flourish, he's very much a meat-and-potatoes dramatist, more concerned with what people say and do in the moment than in how those words and actions are pictured by the camera. At their worst, his films can seem overly literary, like short stories or novels that just happen to be told with actors. At their best they can have the casually immersive quality of well-made plays or adult, intelligent TV series, with an sharp ear for the rhythms of real speech and an eye for the way people's body language can give away what they secretly desire.
Sayles' new thriller "Go for Sisters" is stranded somewhere between those two extremes. It's a story of two childhood friends, a parole officer named Bernice (LisaGay Hamilton) and a recovering drug addict named Fontayne (Yolanda Ross), who team up to solve the mysterious disappearance of Bernice's troubled son Rodney, a suspect in a killing. The film's title is explained in a throwaway bit of dialogue early on: as kids, the women were so close and so compatible that other people thought they could "go for sisters," or be related. Their journey takes them across the border into Mexico, where they navigate a grubby underworld of drug dealing and human trafficking with help from a retired cop named Freddy Suárez (Edward James Olmos), who has an eye disease and is slowly but surely going blind.
As you can imagine, there's a strong (but mostly subtle) aspect of role reversal here. Bernice, the "respectable" one of the friends, steels herself for a dangerous mission and shows that she has the backbone of a street-tough law enforcement officer, despite having gone straight into an administrative job. Fontayne, who's lived her whole adult life on society's seedy fringes, uses that hard-won knowledge for a noble purpose, helping her friend by posing very convincingly as a cop, taking some cues from Freddy but mostly accessing a side of herself she never imagined existed.
Freddy, meanwhile, is acting out his own psychodrama. He's clearly restless in retirement and frustrated by the limitations imposed by his loss of sight; after saying an amusingly quick goodbye to his wife and assuring her that the mission is really not that dangerous, he plunges into a "case" that has a touch of seventies movie seediness, with shadowy figures misdirecting the heroes at every turn as they try to solve a puzzle that seems deeper and more confusing by the hour. In theory Freddy is "helping" the women, but it's instantly clear that this is a self-serving justification. He needs to be back in the game because it makes him feel whole.