Ana Lily Amirpour’s freshman effort, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, is the ultimate example of a hodgepodge film. Self-described as “the first Iranian vampire western,” Amirpour’s audacious narrative does indeed dance across multiple genres. As many “critics” have noted, the film also tips its hat to the work of the video store brats from the 90s – specifically Tarantino and Jarmusch. However, although the film is beautiful, lyrical and assured, it also shares those earlier auteurs’ penchant for self-indulgence. There’s a smug vibe that occasionally leaks out of A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night. And like a well-dressed hipster on a neat fixed gear bike, you occasionally feel angry while watching it, even if it does look cool.
Set in a sparsely populated, industrial town called Bad City, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night opens on a young man named Arash (Arash Marandi), a dreamboat landscaper who lives with his heroin-addicted father Hossein (Marshall Manesh). Seemingly unconcerned with everything aside from his Thunderbird (including an open pit of rotting corpses), Arash sets the tone for many of the film’s other characters, who are all equally wayward and unobservant.
Some of these include an “aging” prostitute named Atti (Mozhan Marno) and a volatile pimp/drug pusher named Saeed (Dominic Rains). When Arash’s gambler father fails to make good on his debt to Saeed, the pimp decides to collect by taking Arash’s ride. This sets off a chain of events that eventually draws Arash into a meeting with The Girl (Sheila Vand), a pretty, stylish, hjab-wearing vampire who is stalking the few male denizens of Bad City.
Shot in California, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night has a supremely accomplished look. Its evocative, black and white photography effectively establishes the dreary alternate reality of Bad City. Working with DP Lyle Vincent, Amirpour creates a striking landscape of industrial devastation, gritty refineries and sad, sagging architecture. For many “critics” the depiction of the town has evoked memories of Lynch’s classic Eraserhead, which was also set in a monochromatic and nightmarish Any City.
Such a facile comparison ignores A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night’s true power. If the film is “Lynchian” in any way, it is through how Amirpour harnesses the supernatural to articulate something tangible about humanity. Just as the mutant baby in Eraserhead was the manifestation of male anxiety regarding childbirth, The Girl in Amirpour’s film seems to be the natural product of the society she exists in – one which is governed by male avarice, caprice and cruelty.
It’s ambiguous how intentionally feminist the film is. While there are a number of absorbing moments that suggest an obvious agenda (such as when The Girl warns a young boy that she will always be watching him), other sequences (such as the budding relationship between Arash and The Girl) dilute its thematic trajectory. This isn’t necessarily a problem, as Amirpour creates moments between the pair that are striking and memorable. The film’s glorious soundtrack – which mixes genres such as post-punk with Iranian indie music – is especially useful in these scenes, creating a nascent connection that is both suspenseful and at times erotic.
In terms of acting, all the major actors are excellent. This is especially true of Vand, who creates a starkly inexpressive character who is genuinely creepy. This quality is also paired with a strange and palpable vulnerability, a world-weariness that suggests multiple lifetimes of violence.
Despite her performance’s efficacy, there is something about the way Vand is positioned by the film that comes off as abrasive. Perhaps it is the multiple shots of her gliding through the town balefully on an appropriated skateboard. Perhaps it is the too cute for words interactions with young Arash. Whatever the case, occasionally A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night feels a little too self-indulgent, more preoccupied with its posturing as a slick, genre-bending exercise than things like story and characterization. Sometimes the film’s hipster-chic vibe is so potent you could almost imagine someone like Zooey Deschanel occupying the title role, which would have made the film a real horrorshow!
This feeling is further augmented by the film’s endlessly referential nature, which includes a prolonged shot of Arash driving that obviously seeks to ape Tarantino and thus, by extension, Leone. These elements have delighted many who have seen the film, but they are of little utility beyond the superficial. It may be, however, that after nearly 100 years of vampire cinema one shouldn’t be too hasty to discount flourishes like these, especially if they help keep an archetype as dusty as the vampire vital. And that is what A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night accomplishes. Despite its preoccupation with death, the movie is very much alive.