There's a strong possibility that A Hero is the most that Asghar Farhadi has ever "done an Asghar Farhadi". This would typically be a problem, but since "doing an Asghar Farhadi" basically means to craft a blend of social commentary and white-knuckle moral thriller done in a deceptively loose realist aesthetic, telling a story that constantly goes in startling new directions that feel both inevitable and totally unpredictable, it's pretty much okay. A Hero is, you might say, unsurprisingly surprising; it's a little shticky but the shtick is to be constantly fresh.

So, in traditional Farhadi style, we kick off with what initially appears to be a typical arthouse movie about Real Life As It Is Really Lived. Rahim (Amir Jadidi) is currently cooling his heels in debtor's prison in the city of Shiraz, having been unable to pay back Bahram (Mohsen Tanabandeh), who lent him and his former business partner a healthy sum of money. The partner and the money both left town, and Rahim is currently enjoying a two-day leave from prison. If "enjoying" is the right word for a 48-hour span that appears to involving cramming in quite so much, under such stressful conditions. This little vacation from reality coincides with a remarkable event: Rahim's fiancée Farkhondeh (Sahar Goldoust) finds a handbag full of gold coins. And here is where the complications begin, when Rahim contacts Bahram to  suggest that he can pay off the debt - some of the debt, because there aren't enough coins to cover the full amount. And since that's the case, he decides that the correct thing to do is to give the money back to its rightful owner, putting out fliers with his sister Malileh's (Maryam Shahdaei) phone number - since he's technically not supposed to be engaged. And for the same reason, he says that he found the coins himself. And these little convenient fibs prove to be the seeds for quite a horrible lot of trouble, once a woman (Fatameh Tavakoli) shows up claiming to own the coins, and for his act of selflessness, Rahim is quickly anointed - wait for it - a hero, in the eyes of the public.

Try to put down on paper where everything goes after this, and I suppose A Hero might sound pretty ordinary, even glib in its possibly ironic choice of title. Because what happens, and what makes things start to go corkscrew shaped, is that characters, starting with the frosty and unsympathetic Bahram, begin to ask the uncomfortable question of just how selfless it was of Rahim to offer to give up the coins, and if it wasn't possible that he was maybe intentionally trying to set him up as a Swell Guy for the media to swoon over. This could easily come across as trite, asking pat little questions about "what it means to do good", and "aren't we all really just in it for ourselves?", and it's probably fair to say that those are exactly the questions Farhadi lays out for us. But there's nothing that feels even a little bit glib about their presentation here. This is in part because the writer-director isn't approaching this as a morality play, but as a terribly fraught suspense picture, as is his wont. Farhadi's manipulation of sympathies and identification points feels like a master conductor commanding a great orchestra: in the course of not merely one scene, but just one shot, for example, he's able to shift Bahram from a petulant miser willing to destroy a nice man's life for some money, to being the only person with a clear head and sensible opinions in a room full of irrational exuberance. And this is done through the simplest minimalism: the shot itself doesn't do anything, doesn't even move, but things as basic as how Tanabandeh sits relative to the rest of the cast, and how his voice is teased out of the sound mix, help to control how much weight he seems to carry in the scene.

It's a particularly memorable moment for how effortlessly Farhadi turns the whole movie on its head in just a brief little passage of dialogue, but the whole of A Hero is pretty much airtight. The precision and control of the screenplay is the closest Farhadi has come to replicating the ungodly perfection of A Seperation in the ten years since that masterpiece debuted, letting major crises grow steadily out of the little details that initially seemed to be just there to flavor the film and give the characters' world some texture. Every new plot revelation completely redefines our relationship to the conflict and the characters involved, reassuring us of Rahim's affable everyday decency or making him seem to at least be prone to some very dumb, impulsive decisions. But it never feels contrived; it has the naturalistic, bumbling-along feeling of life itself. But it expresses this with a breathless, unflagging tension, where you can practically feel the movie tightening itself around your windpipe.

Indeed, it tightens itself so hard that at a certain point, I think it snaps. There are many, many strengths in A Hero that never let up. It is very smartly directed and shot, with the camera often sitting at a wary distance from the characters and approaching the action from bold angles that give it that much more of a suspenseful charge; impressively, this is managed by Farhadi and his two cinematographers, Ali Ghazi and Arash Ramezani, even as they also capture the shaggy, tossed-off feeling of docurealism, just kind of poking around Shiraz and getting a sense for what the place looks like. Given the film's understated grand-scale plot complication - Rahim is still literally imprisoned even as he walks around in the world - the combined rough aesthetic realism and sharp, even fussy compositions give a great sense of everyday life as a boxy trap.

The film also has some great acting, especially in the role that needs it the most: Jadidi's performance as Rahim is as close to perfect as nobody's business. As the film evolves, he needs to seem like a chipper, cheerful guy with a big heart, then like a man using his big smile as a way of keeping himself from going mad as the world crushes down on him, then as a calculated performance for the other film in the world; and while this is going on, there need to be cracks, so that as he rushes to wards his moment of finally breaking under stress, this feels less like an explosion waiting to happen than the sad collapse of a man who, under any reading of the film's plot, deserves better than to be made the generic symbol of the title and the expectations of other people. It's a whole lot of things all at once, all of them carefully doled out but every one of them present pretty consistently.

So, no two ways about it: great stuff. But there does come a point where Farhadi's pursuit of those unanswerable ambiguities finally ceases to feel like the organic messiness of life, and more like the mechanical control of a screenwriter with philosophical conundrums on his mind. It is too perfect, maybe, marching Rahim through events with such impeccable timing and development that he ceases to feel like a difficult person with agency, and more an object for the film too act upon. This is hardly a film-killing development; the ideas A Hero has to explore are agreeably difficult, and getting too enthusiastically intellectual about that exploration is pretty reasonable. But I do think it's enough to keep the film tamped just slightly down, from "easily one of Farhadi's best" to "ahh, that Farhadi, he did it again". Because, I mean, they're kind of all one of his best, and the treat of watching one of the world's best filmmakers do a top-notch riff on himself is certainly not to be missed.