Crippling sanctions, high unemployment, and proximity to Afghanistan, the world’s largest opium producer, are some of the myriad problems that have led to increasingly widespread drug addiction in Iran. Drug trafficking and money laundering go hand in hand, and prisons are overflowing with people being held on drug-related charges. Just 6.5, from filmmaker Saeed Roustayi, balances both sides of the Iranian drug war to astonishingly jarring, emotionally devastating results, with a blend of stressful action sequences, invigorating interrogation scenes, and deeply depressing domestic portraits. It’s one of the best, most personally resonant films I’ve seen in this subgenre because it depicts the awful stress of the drug war while equally considering the far broader, specifically Iranian circumstances that feed into it, and it’s been weighing on my soul since.
We’re used to pop culture depictions of drug kingpins ascending to astonishing wealth and then losing their cool (Scarface) on their way back down, and responses from various governments struggling to combat those networks (Traffic, Sicario, Triple Frontier), but so many films from a Western point of view skimp on the varying social dynamics that have led to these prevalent issues. (Unless we’re talking about the TV perfection of The Wire). Roustayi tracks it all, the rise and the fall of both our hero and our villain, and his empathy for both characters—and his insistence that the efforts of these men are are, to a certain degree, utterly futile for either personal advancement or social betterment—is palpable. Just 6.5 is in no way an easy watch, but it’s an enthralling one, and Roustayi is a distinctive new voice in Iranian cinema.
Just 6.5 begins in Tehran, Iran’s capital city, with a raid: Detective Samad (Payman Maadi, not very good in 6 Underground but forever perfect in A Separation) leads his team into a suspected drug den, breaking through one, two, three doors to try and get inside, to try and capture the men responsible for flooding the city’s streets with drugs. A chase through alleys leads to a construction site; the city is dotted with them, locations half-built, half-abandoned. The suspect gets away, and the failure is another mark on Samad’s record. He’s up for a promotion, but his wife is beginning to suspect that he’s an amoral person; she might want to separate. Samad’s coworkers, including his fellow detective Hamid (Houman Kiai), wonder about the amount of paperwork they’re covering up for Samad. Catching drug dealers is a priority of Iran’s judicial system, and cases can drag on and on. Judges can change their minds at any moment regarding punishment. Samad needs to prove himself, and quickly.
So the team sets it sights on a drug dealer so whispered about, so shrouded in secrecy, that he seems more like a boogeyman than a real person: Nasser Khakzad (Navid Mohammadzadeh, who sort of reminds me of an Iranian Vin Diesel, but like, really goddamn talented). All the lower-level drug dealers Samad hauls in mention his name, but who is he? How can they find him? Samad’s obsession with capturing this man bends his own moral code, and when the narrative leads us to Nasser, Just 6.5 places the two of them in opposition. Each of them is lying to each other, and to themselves. Each of them thinks their actions are justified, both in the context of individual ambition and in terms of serving a greater good. Nasser’s actions on a grand scale make him a monster, but his interactions with other people, including a young boy and his addicted father, give us a glimpse into a tender man prone to bouts of righteous rage. Samad is working to clean up a city in which families are infected with, and then overwhelmed by, addiction; he’s had wives and children lie to his face to protect their husbands and their fathers, and he knows how the drug trade corrupts everyone it touches. Bringing down Nasser would make Tehran a better place—wouldn’t it?
How the men face off against each other in Just 6.5 is fascinating, fantastically written stuff, and I am sorry to report that the subtitles for this film don’t do it justice. Persian is a very idiom-heavy language, exceedingly rapidly paced and drenched with hyperbole and poetry and irony, and the subtitles flatten most of that, compress most of what Samed and Nasser say to each other or to various other characters. In fact, the translated name of the film is so lacking in narrative context that it is sapped of a quite impactful meaning in the original Persian, and I’m honestly fairly bummed by what will be a very different viewing experience for Persian vs. non-Persian speakers.
But even still, the affect and intention and vibe of the movie are so damn strong that you’ll understand what Roustayi is communicating even without some of the dialogue. The desperate bleakness of an abandoned construction site turned into an enclave for the homeless and the downtrodden. The claustrophobic feel of the jail scenes, bodies and bodies and bodies shoved behind bars, forced to undress, forced to stand up, losing their remaining humanity bit by bit. The performative aspect of an execution (drug dealers in Iran are often hanged), and the idea that the ceremony of this is somehow the most important thing to the police and clerics who are overseeing the event, not the lives they are about to take. And these performances! My god! I’ve long been impressed by Maadi, who really taps into something sly and primal here as he always tries to stay just one step ahead of the criminals he’s trying to catch; a scene where he indulges one of the detainees in a brief run for freedom is extremely nihilistic and perfectly in line with who this man has become after years of doing this job. And Mohammadzadeh has, frankly, one of those disturbingly magnetic onscreen presences that makes me totally grasp why this man would be so admired and so feared. He’s mercurial, he’s disciplined, he’s yearning, he’s utterly alone. The utter bereftness of Nasser is staggering, and Mohammadzadeh absolutely communicates how Nasser is simultaneously a champion of the people and one of their greatest traitors.
It’s all exceptionally layered and incredibly complex, and Just 6.5, without compromising anything about its characters or its message about Iranian society, delivers a certain slice of Iranian life that is rarely understood outside of the country. What else could be the point of cinema? Building empathy is the entire thing. What Roustayi accomplishes through technical boldness and emotional nuance is deliriously, unbelievably good, and if you can track down Just 6.5, do it.
Just 6.5 has been playing various film festivals around the U.S., including at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center’s Iranian Film Festival, held in conjunction with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art.
Image sources (in order of posting): SDAFF.org, SDAFF.org, IFFR.com, IFFR.com