Director Saeed Roustayi delivers an ambitious, morally complex thriller that thrives on left-field turns and gritty atmosphere
Law of Tehran shows plenty of ambition from the get-go, delving head-first into a grimy, stuffy, and drug-infested city, torn apart by cops and gangsters, as our anti-hero cop, Samad, a member of the Anti-Narcotics Police Task Force (Payman Maadi, most familiar to Western viewers from his role as the husband in Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation), is assigned to track down drug lord Naser Khakzad (Navid Mohammadzadeh).
What starts as a city-wide hunt for the bad guys, with the maverick cops skirting the law – placing the film in a recent tradition of similarly morally ambiguous thrillers from Iran, alongside the as-yet-undistributed Zalava (Arsalan Amiri) and Subtraction (Mani Haghighi) – soon takes multiple left turns. Naser is caught well within the first hour of the film’s two-hour-plus runtime; the middle third becomes a prison film, as he’s incarcerated in an overstuffed jail with junkies high on his supply, suddenly having to make deals and play politics to stay alive (the penalty for drug dealing in Iran is death). Then the final third again takes another turn into legal drama, as Naser comes up against the strict and implacable face of Iranian legislation and bureaucracy.
As the film’s visual canvas narrows – from all of Tehran to the cramped prison to the bland courtroom – its thematic concerns become multilayered and ever more gripping. The psychological battle between Naser and Samad flips back and forth, an increasingly desperate Naser offering all manner of bribes to get himself out of this mess, whilst Samad toys with him, pretending he'll accept and then watching Naser squirm.
Few characters here are given the opportunity to be anything more than archetypes. We’re given the abused kid, the jilted girlfriend, the by-the-book detective and the loose cannon, sitting under Samad, our ostensible protagonist, who himself is never anything more or less than a hard-ass cop – though Maadi gives him plenty of salt-and-pepper gravitas. And yet it’s Naser who becomes the real protagonist, Mohammadzadeh granting him a litany of complexities beneath the tough-guy persona.
Eventually the film alights on the underlying concern of what exactly makes a dealer or a junkie: it’s no selfish need for power or for the greatest high, but a response to being rejected by the world around them. This loops nicely back into the film’s early scenes, which showcase director Saeed Roustayi’s knack for gritty images that are just the right side of sensationalistic and yet remain evocative (Sam Fuller would be nodding sagely). When the police crack down on the city’s addicts, they find them in a disused construction site, hobbled together inside concrete cylinders; in prison they are all crammed together in a holding pen, forced to strip naked and go through withdrawal.
The superb opening scene sees the cops chase a dealer through the streets – appropriately, they spot him first as a shadow, just a nondescript silhouette, anonymous to them and us alike. It’s this mass anonymisation the film continually returns to, emphasising the bullish strength of its purpose. Sure, the final scenes are a bit too didactic and melodramatic, spelling out the message for the dum-dums, but there’s a fierce, propulsive energy to the entirety of this picture that ensures it's engaging from start to finish.
Law of Tehran is released in UK cinemas on 31 March.Where to watch