Irresistibly billed as “the first Iranian vampire Western,” A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour’s first feature is a strikingly shot, glacially paced wonder.
Its tagline could’ve included a range of other influences: noir, especially, the early 80’s indie sensibilities of Jim Jarmusch, occasionally the uncanniness of Lynch. If it sometimes comes across as too much of a formalist exercise, its sheer audacity takes it a long way. I’m not sure the world realized it needed a moody, noirish black and white vampire Western in Persian, but Amirpour knew better.
The film’s bait-and-switch mentality, and subtle wit, are on display even the title, which promises a variety of horror in which it is totally uninterested. The Girl in question (the excellent Sheila Vand, credited, of course, as “The Girl”) is not the one in any external danger; the men on the street are, particularly those who oppress and abuse women. Even so, though horror tropes are invoked, this is not a remotely scary film. Amirpour’s script turns conventions on their head, and we end up instead with a darkly lit, ominous morality play that hinges on her protagonist’s sexuality and desire.
The vampire femme fatale has a long, not particularly illustrious history, and the vampire has always been soaked in sex and anxiety as a figure in film. Cloaked in a hijab and riding a skateboard through the streets of “Bad City” at night, Vand feeds on those who mean women harm, occasionally frightening little boys into avoiding their fate. She’s a feminist avenger in the dark, but also a woman grappling with her own needs.
When she meets Arash, another poker-faced Bad City resident with a junkie for a father, he’s loaded on drugs he just stole from one of her victims (and dressed as Dracula, natch). Their quiet, tenuous friendship seems to grow into something more, though it’s hard to tell. What’s not hard to tell is how problematic this is going to be for both of them.
The story, and its subtle treatment, are of great interest, but the main takeaway at all times are the mood, the off-kilter shots, the lighting, and the luminous black-and-white dreamscapes Amirpour and her DP Lyle Vincent sustain throughout.
There’s a sense that this is taking place between worlds – The Girl likes disco, New Wave, and Lionel Ritchie, which she plays on vinyl, just as Jarmusch’s ancient protagonists do in his recent, cool-saturated (or exhausted) foray into vampirism, Only Lovers Left Alive. Arash’s car even has a tape deck. Unlike the Jarmusch genre entry, we never get a sense of the specifics of The Girl’s condition – no flashbacks or origin stories or too-cute references to their good friend Christopher Marlowe. A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night takes place in the here and now, though both those words are up for grabs.
The leads are terrific but ultimately overshadowed, as it were, by the gorgeous, confounding images in which they’re placed. There are probably a number of messages to tease out, but the greatest impact lies not in the story but in the frame. This is not a knock on Amirpour – what’s in the frame is more than enough.
The film didn’t work for me as well as it seems to have for others I’ve read, but it’s an undeniably memorable and ambitious debut, a singular film from a director to watch. IMDB describes her next film, The Bad Batch, as a “dystopian love story in a Texas wasteland and set in a community of cannibals.” It’s slated for a 2016 release, and I’ll be the first in line.