Americans have been fretting for a long time now that other countries are doing things that only Americans used to do well, and doing them even better. Crimson Gold provides another reason to feel depressed: We don’t even make the best veteran-on-the-edge movies any more.
Remember Taxi Driver? Dog Day Afternoon? Black Sunday? First Blood, for crying out loud? Back in the day, American filmmakers used Vietnam’s moral ambiguity to create memorable stories about former men of war pushed to the brink by perceived home-front injustices. It was fertile psycho-sociological ground, until it was deemed either too “heavy” or not topical enough and we all moved on to far more pressing cinematic concerns, like which character from The Mummy series would get a spinoff next.
Strictly speaking, Crimson Gold isn’t about the veteran experience. If you coughed for a moment, you might even miss the fact that Hussein (Hussein Emadeddin), the film’s doomed protagonist, was a veteran of the Iran-Iraq War. He wears no camouflage jacket or military beret while he tools around Tehran on his motorcycle delivering pizzas. But Jafar Panahi’s urgent character study does what the classic American vet-on-the-edge films did. It captures the simmering frustration of a man who was prepared to give everything for his country, but watches it give him nothing back in return.
Panahi opens with a magnificent set piece that shows us how doomed Hussein really is. Early one morning, Hussein and his brother-in-law-to-be Ali (Kamyar Sheisi) approach a jewelry store—Hussein to rob it, Ali to serve as look-out. As the camera sits in a fixed position at the rear of the store, we hear heated words between Hussein and the proprietor as a woman pulls up and enters. An alarm goes off; a security gate is tripped. A despondent Hussein first shoots the proprietor, then himself.
Cut to Ali racing through the streets on his motorcycle, only he’s not fleeing the scene of the crime. We’ve slipped back in time, and Ali is on his way to meet Hussein at a coffee shop to address the obstacles—mostly financial—that have hindered Hussein’s ability to marry Ali’s sister (Azita Rayeji). Over the course of the next two days, those obstacles build in Hussein’s mind until he becomes a man willing to take desperate measures.
The “prelude to a tragedy” flashback structure is nothing radically new, but Panahi—working from a script by Abbas Kiarostami, as he did in 1995’s The White Balloon—gives it a unique rhythm. Iranian films have gotten a bad rap for being ponderous exercises in gritty realism, and indeed Panahi allows shots to linger much longer than other directors might. Yet the tactic works here, much more effectively than in Panahi’s previous feature, the didactic plight-of-Iranian-women tale The Circle. It’s not just slow; it’s creeping inexorably toward a terrible inevitability.
Inevitability isn’t always a brilliant ploy to keep folks watching, but Crimson Gold remains enthralling not just in spite of our knowledge of Hussein’s fate, but because of it. A crucial episode finds Hussein grumbling as an attempt to deliver an order is thwarted by a military police stakeout. As he watches the men arrest attendees at a party—showing the government’s priority of protecting moral order—Hussein first complains over being kept from his rounds, before eventually distributing his pizzas to the soldiers. Panahi captures the kinship Hussein still feels with the men, adding a tragic edge to the condescending snubs that lead to mounting anger. By the eve of his ill-fated stab at crime—when an encounter with a wealthy, spoiled American immigrant’s son becomes the last straw—his buried rage has become a lit fuse.
It should add resonance to the tale that Emaddedin—a non-professional actor—is himself a veteran suffering from schizophrenia, yet it actually works against Crimson Gold. Like many Iranian filmmakers, Panahi and Kiarostami tend to give their characters the same name as the actors playing them, making the “this is what the society is really like” sensibility feel slightly forced. It’s clear enough from the skillfully crafted episodes that the story vividly captures real emotions. Future filmmakers should be taking notes for how they might handle stories of soldiers returned from Middle East wars. That’s right, American directors: Jafar Panahi’s talkin’ to you.
CRIMSON GOLD, ***.5, Hussein Emadeddin, Kamyar Sheisi, Azita Rayeji, Not Rated