Every film festival should open or close with an Asghar Farhadi movie. It would either properly prime your taste buds or wash out some bad flavors. The Iranian writer-director makes dizzyingly complex studies of social, familial, and moral conflict—dramas that send your mind racing to keep up with the desperate plight of their characters. That description fits Farhadi’s The Past, the first movie I saw at the first Toronto Film Festival I ever covered professionally, back when I was still an interloping fresh hire of The A.V. Club, incensing readers with too many C+s. Eight years (and eight TIFFs) later, Farhadi is back with a new triumph, A Hero, which yours truly watched today as punctuation on the 2021 edition of the fest. It’s nice that some things never change. Like how this guy still makes terrific bookends to any weeklong movie binge.
As is the case with most of Farhadi’s films, A Hero unfolds both unpredictably and with devastating inevitability. The title character is Rahim (Amir Jadidi), an imprisoned calligrapher out on personal leave for a couple days who finds himself the apple of the public eye when he appears to do something entirely noble and selfless. His girlfriend (Sahar Goldust), who he intends to marry after his sentence is up, finds a lost handbag containing a number of gold coins. Though selling the coins would help Rahim pay off the considerable debt that’s landed him behind bars (as we later learn, this wasn’t exactly his fault; his business partner ran off with the money the two borrowed), Rahim has instead opted to return them to their rightful owner—an act of apparent altruism that earns him the admiration of his neighborhood, some local media attention, and the interest of a charity that might be able to solve his financial problems through fundraising efforts. Will doing the right thing pay off?
Well, not exactly. “No good deed goes unpunished” reads the first line of the TIFF program entry on A Hero. (The words have popped up in some reviews, too). In truth, that old adage doesn’t entirely do justice to the nature of Rahim’s ethically ambiguous actions. Does his conscience intervene, or does he realize that there might be greater benefit to his cause in returning the coins, which he discovers he wouldn’t get that much money for anyway? Farhadi, an expert dramatist, understands that saints are less interesting than fallible people attempting to reconcile their own moral code with self-interest. He knows, too, that tragedies (the fictional kind, anyway) hit harder when the protagonist is undone not just by the cruel machinations of fate but by their own flaws and mistakes. Which is what happens, to some degree, in A Hero, as a series of little white lies told by Rahim explode spectacularly in his face.
Though he officially insists his films aren’t “political” (one reason, perhaps, that he hasn’t faced the kind of government suppression visited upon fellow countrymen Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof), Farhadi is a shrewd cultural critic. Whether he’d put it in such clear-cut terms, A Hero is a drama about the cruelty of modern debtors’ prison, a national obsession with honor and “goodness,” and the by-no-means-specific-to-Iran cycle of internet valorization and swift backlash. (I’m only half-kidding when I say that this is a milkshake duck movie from the director of A Separation.) One could, however, completely miss or ignore the social implications and still be stunned by the intricacy of the film’s plotting—the way Farhadi swirls resentments, variably good intentions, and compounding deceptions into a vortex that sucks everyone around Rahim into its maw. No other filmmaker, by this critic’s memory, has ever taken such a sustained interest in liars, nor better captured the queasy panic of getting caught in your lies, no matter the reason for telling them.
So attuned is Farhadi to the essential nature of our species that one could be forgiven for assuming, at an uninformed skim of the program, that his latest was the movie called The Humans. In fact, this buzzed-about TIFF selection, produced (and cannily trailered) by A24, is the feature directorial debut of Stephen Karam, who’s adapted his own Tony-winning Broadway show about a family gathering in an empty, creaky downtown Manhattan apartment for Thanksgiving. This is the new home of artist Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) and her boyfriend, Richard (Steven Yeun), who have arrived before the moving truck carrying most of their belongings. Joining them for the holiday in this unfurnished, rather rustic (to put it politely) New York duplex are Brigid’s bickering middle-class parents, Erik (Richard Jenkins) and Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell); her older sister, attorney Aimee (Amy Schumer), who’s facing personal, professional, and medical woes; and her senile grandmother, Momo (June Squibb), who seems barely aware of her surroundings.
Over the course of the day, tensions gurgle more loudly than the ancient pipes snaking around the unit, as the characters needle each other about money, religion, eating habits, mental health, and the strange dreams they recount over one too many drinks at dinner. In its single-setting claustrophobia, The Humans betrays its origins as big, capital-T Theater, all heavy themes weighing on the vitriol hurled across a half-darkened set. Yet Karam also combats the staginess at every turn, “opening up” his material not through any flashbacks or detours into the streets below but rather through a relentless supply of modern horror-movie technique. Sometimes, the camera rolls from an ominous distance, squeezing the characters into narrow hallways and peeking at them through cracks in doors. Other times, it settles on napes, slowly spins around the dinner table, or creeps in slowly. Meanwhile, the soundtrack is an unnerving cacophony of offscreen interruptions: mysterious thuds from the unit above, the drip of water through damaged wood, groaning radiators. (This sonic component is supposedly carried over from the stage production.)
One is tempted to describe The Humans as a haunted house movie, with the ghosts replaced by neuroses, economic anxiety, and the specter of September 11th. (Though the particular year isn’t specified, it’s mentioned more than once that the apartment isn’t far from ground zero.) Midway through, as day bleeds into disquieting night, you half expect some monstrosity—maybe the faceless fiend from Jenkins’ dream—to lurch out of the shadows and interrupt all the bad-funk gab. Then comes an astonishingly orchestrated final scene, legitimately scary without quite breaking in a genre direction. What we may be seeing is the first major, straight drama plainly influenced by the films of Hereditary and Midsommer director Ari Aster. Or maybe just one made in the general style A24 seeks from fright-leaning acquisitions.
To this critic’s eyes, the aggressive stylization is a double-edged sword. It’s cool to see Karam rethink his acclaimed one-act for the screen, putting all the tools of a new trade to unnerving use. At the same time, he occasionally threatens to upstage his actors, who are all incredible. It’s hard to single out just one performance here, but I was particularly blown away by Houdyshell (last seen on the big screen in Little Women) and her perfect approximation of free-speaking Middle-American motherhood, as well as the way Yeun suggests a shield of extreme I’m-not-getting-too-involved politeness. In the cast’s credible run-through of a family get-together fraught with conflicts both voiced and not, I saw lots to shudder in recognition at. Which is to say, Thanksgiving is plenty frightening without jump scares and J-horror framing.