Written and Directed by: Ana Lily Amirpour
Starring: Sheila Vand, Arash Marandi, and Marshall Manesh
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"You don't know me."
If you’re going to stitch together a cinematic patchwork out of disparate genres, it almost seems like vampires have to represent horror. After all, they’ve been there practically since the beginning of the medium, haunting frames with an enigmatic mixture of sexuality and menace. As familiar as they’ve grown, there’s something alluring about their elusiveness; despite more popular, romanticized takes from recent decades, vampires will always be eternally cooler as mysterious, aloof figures. With her feature debut, Iranian filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour attempts to recapture that elusiveness among the ghosts and shadows of other lost touchstones. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a mix tape that thrives on obscurity: you may recognize its remixed songs, but arriving at their meaning is something different altogether. Like a vampire gliding into a mist, it remains at a distance, seducing you from afar, unwilling to truly let you in.
Set in the fictional Iranian town Bad City, the film deliberately hovers around a seedy scene of pimps and dope dealers. Carving out a meager existence among the badlands is Arash (Arash Marandi), a 50s greaser wannabe whose job apparently involves dumping bodies in an impromptu gutter-grave. He constantly battles with a junkie father whose debts must be covered, so the local gangster (Dominic Rains) takes Arash’s beloved car as compensation before resuming his duties as a pimp for the evening. Watching the drama unfold from afar is the Girl (Sheila Vand), a lonely vampiric figure draped in the city’s shadows, apparently walking its streets as a bloodsucking avenger—maybe.
The Girl—who may or may not even refer to the title character—is the most striking but obscure image, a mystery wrapped up in the enigma that is A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, if you will. Infused with a cool, detached blankness by Vand, she’s immediately mesmerizing as she glides down the street on a skateboard, her chador trailing behind, almost begging to be shed. Her decision to become an avatar of vengeance by feasting on Bad City’s abusive men is a killer, familiar hook, one that immediately endears her to audiences. When she dances to dream pop in her room, practically seducing us with eyes hidden beneath mascara, it’s an intoxicating snapshot of a teenage daydream with the life sucked out of it.
It’s tempting to consider The Girl is a more specific avatar reflecting Amirpour’s frustrations of her home country’s treatment of women. Given her clothing and her targeting of men, it’s an easy line to draw, yet the film doesn’t find glory or triumph in her apparent mission. There’s a sadness underlying Vand’s performance, a sort of perpetual loneliness that keeps her at a distance. Even as she strikes up a conversation—and possibly a relationship with Arash (whom she meets at a costume party where he’s dressed as Dracula), she remains disconnected and distant. She insists to Arash that she’s done bad things, but he knows he’s no saint himself; neither has to say it, but both are seeking some kind of comfort in the other.
But A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is not the sort of film that relies on overt gestures, much less romantic displays. A measured, laconic connection develops, reflected in slow, almost blank gazes and subtle glances. Music is a shared language between the two, insomuch as it’s how the two learn about each other. This, too, is somehow melancholy, as it seems that the couple is only a collection of pop culture affectations: with his pompadour haircut, blue jeans, and white-shirt, he’s James Dean. Meanwhile, she loves the almost archaic pop stylings of Lionel Ritchie, leaving one with the impression that these two may not have a culture of their own; instead, they’ve only re-appropriated the past and feasted upon the ghosts of bygone years.
Again, you wonder if this isn’t an indictment of Iran, or, at the very least, a reflection of a lack of cultural identity. This is a film performed by Iranian actors speaking Persian, yet it obviously unfolds in a Southern California desert town that’s been transformed into a cinematic dreamscape. Widescreen panels reminiscent of Sergio Leone are bathed in the monochrome shadows and fog of Val Lewton in this self-proclaimed “Iranian vampire spaghetti-western,” itself a sort of bloodsucker that’s consumed its medium’s lifeforce and now thrives on it. Characters may lounge about as if they were in a Jim Jarmusch film, but A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night has a vibrant energy pulsing beneath its pastiche façade.
Jarmusch, of course, recently made a vampire hangout flick of his own. But where Only Lovers Left Alive engaged the vampire mythos, particularly its longstanding struggle with the torments of eternity, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night resists any obvious commentary. Even its title misdirects and subverts by suggesting a classic horror movie setup—and the vulnerability it entails—before turning it on its head, but only gently so. While The Girl herself is predator rather than prey, Amirpour doesn’t revel in the upended conceit, choosing instead to get lost in a dreamy, melancholy haze and skirt around obvious dramatic beats that never arrive. A trace amount of irony rests in the realization that A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is obsessed with pop culture but doesn’t fawn over it or wallow in it.
Rather, it might be the platonic ideal of blank parody, a nostalgia film longing for a garbled past now relayed in signifiers that have become cool for the sake of cool. It’s a cinematic vampire inviting us to also get lost in its hypnotic, evasive gaze. You can lock eyes, but never connect.
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