For most of this film’s run-time, it’s a conventional, perhaps a little contrived, serial killer film, with a great opening sequence, that is otherwise mostly distinguished by the fact it is set in Mashad, Iran. And then it goes to a place that these films don’t. But that’s a spoiler so
The opening sequence is pretty fantastic – and I don’t actually want to spoil it – and shows Abbasi really knows what he’s doing from a directorial standpoint. (If I tell you the movie it reminds me of, that will spoil it.)
The film then settles into a fairly traditional American serial killer, hunter-and-hunted plot that is mostly saved by the two very good leads, the utterly unique setting (this film will not be showing in Iran I don’t think), and some pretty great set pieces. (There is one involving a foot that is pretty funny.) A similar movie (and there are many), with a different setting and worse actors, wouldn’t work anywhere near as well, even with the assured direction. It helps to set a conventional story in a new place.
But then something happens: the serial killer is caught and he goes to jail. And the movie evolves into something entirely different: will the local government, who appears to condone the work of this serial killer, actually punish him? Both leads have their doubts, for different reasons. It almost turns into the serial killer version of A Separation. (I’m only half joking.) It’s a turn these movies basically never take because, for Hollywood, there is (nearly always) an implicit trust in the justice system: the killer is caught the story is over. (Unless the film is about corrupt cops.)
But, in this film, we get our hero fearing the killer will get off because too many people sympathize with him rather than his victims, and the killer thinking he will get off for the same reason. (And, you know, he’s a serial killer, so he’s crazy.) It’s a fascinating and pretty deft stylistic change, necessitated by the setting.
I’ve been struggling with my rating, with the conventionality and contrivance of the plot pulling one way, the acting, the setting and that left turn pulling the other way. Apparently this film was inspired by actual events in Mashad around the turn of the century, and that makes me think I should throw concerns about contrivance out the window. [Editor’s note: I later learned an Iranian colleague actually remembered the news stories!] Maybe a real journalist really would do this in a city where the government and the cops appeared to approve of what a criminal was doing.