When sitting down to watch an Asghar Farhadi film (“A Separation,” “The Past”) you never know exactly what you’re going to get, what path you’re going to go down. “The Salesman” begins as a mundane domestic drama/slice of life portrait revolving around married couple Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) as they and others put on production of Arthur Miller’s iconic play “Death of a Salesman.” Emad and Rana are looking for a new place to live, so at the advice of a friend they move into a recently vacated apartment. In fact it’s been vacated so recently that the stuff from the previous tenant (furniture, personal belongings) is still there, boarded up in a room.
From there, an intriguing and unexpected mystery slowly begins to emerge: who is this previous tenant and why did she leave her stuff? Right as Emad and Rana are beginning to collect information about this mystery person “The Salesman” pivots into crime/thriller territory. Rana is assaulted one evening, and that’s as specific as I’m going to get on that front, so as not to spoil it. Rana is left with a head injury and even greater psychological damage. She doesn’t want to be anywhere alone, she feels like a stranger in her own home and she’s even unable to work on the play. The incident also takes its toll on Emad; he wants to be supportive of his wife but he also wants to be proactive about the situation. When Rana chooses not to go to the authorities Emad is left feeling frustrated and useless.
Farhadi is a master at crafting naturalistic film suspense. There’s no dramatic music, flashy editing, or showy cinematography. In other words, he’s not trying really hard to make you feel tense. Instead, the forty five year old Iranian filmmaker (who just recently won his second Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film) makes it look easy-- through deliberate yet steady pacing, a cleverly understated script that keeps the movie’s focus on its central couple and natural acting. Hosseini and Alidoosti give such restrained and nuanced performances, never letting the material or their roles drift into melodramatic territory. Overall, “The Salesman” is measured, quietly absorbing stuff. Even when the plot takes a wild turn or two Farhadi never allows the film to collapse into outrageousness and implausibility. Fed up with this incident and the toll has it has taken on his relationship, Emad decides to take matters into his own hands and “The Salesman” turns into a revenge drama. Though it’s not the revenge drama you expect.
Revenge is one of those romanticized concepts that can only be truly satisfying in fiction. On the silver screen, revenge being carried out can be oh so sweet--a vigilante taking the law into his or her own hands to punish a despicable person. I admit that I’m a sucker for a good revenge flick. But in real life, revenge usually isn’t that sweet. In most cases all it brings is more anger and heartache. In keeping with its naturalistic style, “The Salesman” opts for this more realistic outlook on revenge and is better for it. Emad becomes consumed with anger and sadness, causing him to be reckless and uncharacteristically cruel. Vengeance isn’t so satisfying after all; in fact it can actually make things significantly worse for you. Ultimately, “The Salesman” is more about the effects Emad’s pursuit of vengeance has on his already vulnerable relationship with Rana than the act of vengeance itself, making it one of the freshest movies about revenge in years.