The problem with being the director responsible for A Separation is that you'll almost certainly never make something as good as A Separation ever again. Would I have fallen head over heels for The Salesman if it was just some movie, and not the seventh feature made by Asghar Farhadi? In truth, reader, I do not know. It's awfully damn good, at any rate, though hobbled from the word "go" by one fundamental decision: it picks the wrong protagonist.

The quick version of the film: Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) are husband-and-wife actors rehearsing a new production of Death of a Salesman. This would, it seems, already be sufficient to put a little bit of a pinch on their relationship, but it's just about the least urgent among the stressors facing the couple just now. As we witness in the film's opening scene (following a wordless, character-free glance at the empty Death of a Salesman stage, moodily setting up a dichotomy between the bright, colorful, and fragmentary world of the play and the blandly tan and brown world of Tehran that will play out through the whole film), the building where Emad and Rana have been living collapses, more or less out of nowhere, forcing them to find lodging more or less the first place they can. That proves to the seemingly abandoned apartment of a women who makes her living as a prostitute. This situation, the best that can be managed under the circumstances, drones along for a little while, until the day that Rana is assaulted in her new home, assuming that the noise of the intruder was just Emad. She's a bit opaque in describing the attack, and Emad doesn't ask many questions, but instead simply launches into amateur detective mode, hunting everywhere for clues to what happened and who broke in, and thus plotting his revenge.

When it comes right down to it, here's what I don't get about The Salesman: why focus on Emad? Because that's exactly what Farhadi does. Maybe I'm just thinking that the grass is greener on the other side, but surely Rana has the more interesting story here? Emad, basically, is playing at a casually naturalistic Iranian version of every vigilante thriller under the sun. And it is, without doubt, a really good thriller. Farhadi's ability to wrest tension from the most unlikely, unforced moments is quite a marvelous thing, and doubly so given that he steadfastly refuses to abandon the low-key aesthetic that stands for Art House Movie around the world: long takes, quotidian imagery, small emotional registers, that whole thing. And Hosseini (who won Best Actor at Cannes in 2016, alongside Farhadi's Best Screenplay) is unquestionably superb in the role, allowing a note of distracted misery and helpless frustration at the world to sneak in slowly over the course of the film.

But I don't know. We know from A SeparationΒ  that Farhadi can write and direct extraordinary female characters. Moreover, we know from About Elly that he can write and direct extraordinary female characters who are kept at a remove from us by a screenplay that distinctly limits the knowledge we have access to at any given part of the plot. Hell, we even know that he can do these things from The Salesman itself, since Rana is an extraordinary character, and Alidoosti (who played the titular Elly in the 2009 film) performs her with an exemplary amount of delicacy that allows us to make several highly educated guesses about what's going in her mind without ever confirming it for us. That's the thing, she's so interesting that I want more of her, and less of Emad's effectively-staged, but ultimately repetitive torment (this is the first Farhadi film I've ever seen that I wished was shorter).

Ah well, we have to deal with the film we have, not the film we wish we had, and at least The Salesman has the decency to be terrific within its own terms and limitations. While the director's last three films all at least faced in the direction of the thriller form (About Elly did so the most), The Salesman is the director's first all-out engagement with that genre, and the results are extremely hard to quibble with, especially in the final quarter of an hour or so, when it becomes almost physically exhausting to watch Emad's obsession finally reach its culmination. Indeed, the final cluster of scenes is easily the best part of the film for a number of reasons: it's the most tense part of the film and the most morally philosophical, it features Hosseini's best acting in the movie by far, the final scene is interestingly ambivalent and ambiguous in directions that the rest of the movie would certainly have benefited from (with the caveat that ambiguous endings are starting to calcify into shtick for this director), and after two hours of a movie that steadily refuses to capitalise on the hulking presence of Death of a Salesman all throughout its running time, there finally starts to be some clear reason to have that literary reference front and center. Though really not enough to justify naming the film after the play, nor devoting so much screen time it.

Beyond that, The Salesman offers more of the pleasures of Farhadi's whole career. Such as his finely-tuned sense of how people in relationships regard each other, which remains the best single thing about the film, even if Emad and Rana aren't artistic creations as endlessly productive and stimulating as the two failing marriages inside A Separation. It's also a characteristically sharp portrayal of life in contemporary Iran, less explicitly politicised than A Separation, but not therefore less insightful or critical about the challenges facing ordinary people in that country; it starts, after all, with a crisis triggered by literal collapsing infrastructure. In fact, the very routine situations we see play out - there is a central crisis, of course, but a substantial amount of the movie is made up of reasonably ordinary days that have just a slight edge to them - make this a rather more evocative depiction of daily life than the melodramatic hothouse of Farhadi's best-known films.

I wish I loved it; it's certainly worthy of love. Only a great artist working with great collaborators could have put something this slippery and elusive, even if it is not, in and of itself, great. But real damn good is still a high bar to clear, and The Salesman vaults past it, and if I keep finding myself want to spit out the phrase "minor Farhadi" and just be done with it, that's hardly the same as claiming that it's in some way unworthy of attention and respect.