Swathed in moody black and white and boasting a memorably rad soundtrack, writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour’s debut feature A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a synthesis of many filmic influences in the spirit of Tarantino’s now-familiar style of pastiche. Disparate parts are swept together in a hypnotic rhythm that pays homage to past American films and the burgeoning Iranian New Wave scene. It all comes together to create the first ever (and maybe only) Iranian Western Vampire movie.
The plot is light and almost inconsequential, instead playing second banana to a dreamlike mood and individual scenes that are striking but sometimes fail to cohere. The story is set in the fictional Iranian ghost town of Bad City – a seedy industrial place where lawfulness is in short supply. Smokestacks and oil wells pump away in the background as dead bodies are piled in a ditch and the residents huddle indoors. The streets are empty and dangerous while prostitutes, drug addicts and pushers rule the night.
Arash Marandi stars as Arash, a lithe young man clad in blue jeans who cherishes his classic American sports car. His father Hossein (Marshall Manesh) is hopelessly addicted to heroin while the villainous Saeed (Dominic Rains) keeps Hossein supplied but demands his long overdue money owed. After Saeed commandeers Arash’s car as payment, a series of events is set off that swirls these characters, as well as Mozhan Marnò as the sympathetic but purely capitalist prostitute Atti, into the path of a mysterious vampire (called The Girl in the credits) played by Sheila Vand.
The Girl is a shadowy presence at first, briefly glimpsed clad in a headscarf and riding a skateboard stolen from a terrified child. It’s a piercing image and Vand brings an otherworldliness to The Girl that all the best vampires of cinema possess. She’s aloof, threatening and seductive, an outsider looking in at the human race who’s searching for romance, victims and sometimes both.
The dialogue is minimal and evocative, with characters speaking mostly in coded terms that nods to Sergio Leone’s Westerns. While Arash or The Girl might not have a lot to say, their actions and longing looks often speak volumes (like Clint Eastwood’s “The Man With No Name”). Amirpour’s character’s names are another clear homage to Leone. Sometimes it works wonders, allowing the story to be told nearly all visually, exemplifying film’s sacred rule of “show don’t tell”. At other points it feels like the script is mere window dressing to the much more effective and sumptuous visuals.
The highlight of the film (for me) comes at the midway point when Arash, high on drugs, goes back to The Girl’s place and she wordlessly puts on a record. White Lies’ “Death” comes on and plays out (almost in its entirety) as The Girl circles the inebriated Arash, unsure whether to kiss or kill him. The air drips with malevolence and hormones, and the scene reiterates that the best vampires are driven by primal desires. As The Girl leans in to Arash the booming soundtrack dims and Arash’s heartbeat can be heard thrumming loudly. The Girl’s fangs are bared and Arash’s head is thrown back, exposing his virginal neck – it’s a moment of exquisite tension and palpable eroticism.
Elsewhere music is used to similar effect, vaulting beyond background noise to become entwined with the story. There’s modern Iranian rock, contemporary North American tunes, and twanging guitars that again reference Leone’s dusty Westerns. The scenes they accompany are drawn out and imbued with a David Lynch-like nightmare logic that mostly works in the context of the film but withholds significant details. As a viewer you’re forced to fill in the edges of this world, wondering how long The Girl has been a vampire, why the bodies are slowly piling up, and if Bad City is a vision from a post-apocalyptic future. The answers aren’t readily given, proving that A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is more concerned with its (admittedly striking) posturing and less invested in telling a more conventional narrative.
The chiaroscuro world of the film examines good and evil, but with so few characters and such protracted scenes it lacks scale and scope, instead relying on pure verve. It can swing wildly from one scene to the next, much like some of Tarantino’s efforts (I’m looking at you Death Proof), with the best scenes drawing you in entirely and the less successful moments distancing you without the mooring of real empathy to rely on. Ultimately A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is an exercise in style that succeeds in creating an excitingly specific genre, even if it lacks a strong through line. And damn, it looks and sounds fantastic doing it.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)
Director: Ana Lily Amirpour
Runtime: 101 minutes