“The Salesman”

The winner of the best foreign language film of 2016, “The Salesman” is a provocative look at Iranian culture. Director and writer Asghar Farahdi also won an Oscar for his 2011 film ” A Separation”. He is good at showing the male/female dynamic in a culture where power is so skewed in male favor. The film is complex and shifts settings and registers from the classroom, to the set of a stage production of Arthur Miller’s ” Death Of A Salesman”, to daily family life in modern Tehran.

Our protagonist is a high school English teacher, he and his wife are also parents and actors. Emad Estesami ( Shahab Hosseini) and his wife, Rana ( Taraneh Alidoosti) must quickly evacuate their apartment complex. Windows are cracking and plaster is crumbling.  A construction project next door has destabilized their space. In an initial scene, we see all the residents tumble down the stairs amid the smell of gas.This is a precursor of things to come.

When a friend finds them temporary shelter in a friend’s semi-abandoned apartment,   an intruder surprises Rana in the shower. Her screams draw residents, and Rana and Emad’s life will never be the same. Part thriller and morality play, “The Salesman” is unevenly paced in real time, except for one six months later jump. Once the pitiful deviant is found, our sympathies sway. Emad, the patient teacher and husband, comes unhinged. Once easy and jocular, Emad is revenge-filled. Questions like ” Can an obsession with justice be unjust? ” and ” Can self-doubt humiliate beyond repair?” throws us back to Linda and Willy Loman. Viewers understand that “attention must be paid”. Our stories are not so easily judged.

 

“The Gift”

Wishing for a domestic thriller akin to last summer’s “Gone Girl” ?  Try the well-filmed and well-written and well-acted Joel Edgerton movie,”The Gift”. The 41-year-old Aussie wrote, starred and ,for the first time, directed a slow-burning psychological thriller that is “Pacific Heights” scary and “Fatal Attraction” obsessive. Plus,the ambition ethic of getting ahead at all costs is knocked a good punch.

The camera rolls in slow motion as we are introduced to Simon and Robyn (Justin Bateman and Rebecca Hall) electing to buy a mid-century-modern, glass home. Lots of light and Windex won’t give this couple clear views or intimacy as long as they keep up their respective lies. The music is ominous like the genre demands. The motif of transparency is nicely sprinkled throughout the film with steamy shower -surface -wipes and hearts drawn on glass after hot breaths. Attention to detail is this movie’s strength, while “there is more to what you see” is made clear.

While our couple is purchasing a throw rug, we see through wine glass displays that a man is staring. Even the clerk notices. The man advances and queries Simon with “don’t I know you?” Simon looks flummoxed and our writer-director-actor, Joel Edgerton, introduces himself as Gordon Mosley,or Gordo, a high school classmate of Simon’s. With all the principles on-screen, the secrets and deceptions keep the audience guessing. Gift giving turns into perversion. Surprise after surprise!

One of the ploys of scary movies is how normal,familiar activities like brushing your teeth or opening a box or attending a baby shower can lull you into identification. The way that Simon and Rebecca share their concerns about “Weirdo Gordo” with neighbors and work friends has all of them brain-storming how the couple should handle the intrusive Gordo. Simon says they should “rip off the band-aid” and cut all ties. Bateman plays the masterful husband well. We are more used to his 1980 sitcoms and his “Bad Words” persona. Here, as Simon, former high school class president, he is uncovered as a class bully,too. A horrifying abuse twenty years ago is clarified, a revenge plot is partially unhatched,and a pill-popping wife loses all trust in her husband’s fabrications. But the gifts keep coming! There are cars chases and hospital races and an abruptly closed curtain in the glass enclosed nursery.

Gordo uses Simon’s own top-dog vocabulary and tone in his revenge plot. “I’m going to power through this, or should I” is particularly satisfying. Edgerton’s acting,his use of blue-light night photography, and Wagnerian opera music is noteworthy.

Rebecca Hall plays submissive well, but her unlocking secrets in the most ordinary way and then magically deciding on key life moves is strong,resourceful and brave. Last seen and reviewed in the sci-fi drama “Transcendence” (4.29.15) as Evelyn Caster, Hall is a British actress who is subtle with emotion, yet forthright in action. I loved the gift-boxed pregnancy test stick and her offer to give up the monkey wind-up so spontaneously. Remember the saw that “good people deserve good things” and see this well-crafted tale.