Synopsis: As they mount a production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, a shocking event threatens to tear an unassuming couple apart. (Source)
Who are we when pushed to our limits? Is there a darker self, a person we don’t know about hiding within and waiting for the right trigger? That’s the premise behind Asghar Farhadi’s latest, The Salesman. Taking a cue from Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Farhadi navigates similar thematic ideas, focusing on a couple and the unspeakable act that causes them to disintegrate. Digging deep into his characters’ psyches, Farhadi explores an explosive cocktail of mistaken identity, vengeance, temptation and even forgiveness, with a slow burn that painfully sets its gaze upon the horrors within. In essence, this is a relationship drama that unfolds like a thriller, featuring two haunting performances from Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti, and a final act that’s so suffocating, it’s almost unbearable.
The film beings in earnest, with a near-catastrophe. In Tehran, two thespians named Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) are forced to evacuate their apartment during an earthquake. No one is harmed, but when the couple are forced to find a new home, their troubles are far from over. The previous tenant refuses to pick up their belongings, preventing the pair from completely settling in, and further domestic strains hits new heights when things take a darker turn. Emad returns home one night to find Rana in the shower, and suffering from a bloody head injury. It turns out she absentmindedly let a stranger in thinking it was Emad, and an undefined assault has occurred. The trauma sends Rana spiraling, unable to be forthcoming about the incident, on top of not being able to identify her attacker. As she retreats further into mental isolation, Emad is forced to pick up the pieces. Throughout the search for Rana’s mystery intruder, the couple begin to shift individually and as a pair, confronting parts of themselves they didn’t know existed.
Farhadi’s approach is measured, immersing us first and foremost into the life of his characters before pulling the rug out from underneath. From here, things unfold with a razor-sharp blend of procedural mystery and domestic dissonance, intricate yet deafeningly understated. In this way, the plot really comes alive through the things that aren’t said – there’s a stark contrast of who these two are at the film’s start, and their transformations sneak up on us. Adding to this is a meta angle, which comes in the form of the couple’s stage adaptation of Death of a Salesman, slyly signaling shifts in their relationship. For a film about internal angst, Farhadi’s film is vivid, leaving a lot of its dark implications up in the air, but always precisely honing in on the torment killing his characters. As a subtle sense of unease turns into heart-stopping, existential dread, we learn that vengeance, justice and honor are ideas which don’t necessarily take forms we’re familiar with – and are each double-edged swords.
Needless to say, the film rests on the violent struggles which occur into Emad and Rana’s heads, and to make those silent battles hit hard, are two killer performances from Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti. As Emad, Hosseini carries the bulk of the picture, wrestling with a sense of honor and responsibility towards his wife, but also a gradually uncontrollable rage. What Hosseini has to balance is very tricky, but he makes it work without turning into a caricature. As Rana, Alidoosti is in many ways the film’s heart and its center. With the story’s trauma resting solely on her shoulders, Alidoosti gives a painful performance that emotes her inner pain with an unflinching sense of realism. You can sense the psychological violence in her, but also a strength and kindness. Together, the pair a wonderful contrast to each other, starting out as two sides of the same coin before splintering into wholly different people.
The Salesman is assured and patient, exploring how complex we are as people, and how it’s hard to ever truly know the ones we love, or even ourselves for that matter. Still, Farhadi is as interested in the darkness we’re capable of, as well as the compassion that compliments it. Though the film doesn’t end with a nice, neat bow, nor should it, it’s an emotional look at constantly shifting forms of justice and honor, and why the two ideas to often mistaken for rage and revenge.