A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
2014, NR, 99 min. Directed by Ana Lily Amirpour. Starring Sheila Vand, Arash Marandi, Marshall Manesh, Mozhan Marno, Dominic Rains, Rome Shandanloo.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., April 10, 2015
It’s been a terrorific time for fans of cinematic neckbiters lately. First came Jim Jarmusch’s hypnotically sanguine Only Lovers Left Alive; then Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s What We Do in the Shadows, a dead-on satire of vampiric tropes, opened just over a month ago; and now the audacious first feature from writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour has come to claim the title of the “world’s first Iranian feminist vampire spaghetti western.” It’s a spooky, moody doozy of a debut, lensed by Director of Photography Lyle Vincent in a radiant monochrome that somehow makes even the darkness sparkle.
Bakersfield, Calif., doubles for the fictional Iranian town of Bad City, a gloomy gray amalgam of benighted alleyways, empty streets, and the occasional David Lynchian power plant. It’s a zone populated entirely by criminals, victims, and the luckless ones caught in between. James Dean wannabe Arash (Marandi) and his junkie father (Manesh) are hounded by neighborhood dealer/scumbag Saeed (Rains), who also finds time to rough up the local prostitute (Marno) when he’s not getting high on his own supply. In short, Bad City is aptly named.
Things change for the strange with the arrival – or maybe she’s always been there? – of the titular girl (Vand, in a powerful and unearthly performance). Clad in a Jean Seberg striped shirt and a black chador, she’s both predator and possibly an answer to unspoken prayers, an avenging, fallen angel and close kin to Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45.
When the girl and Arash finally meet cute, you realize instantly that you’re watching one of the great sequences in surreal, transgressive cinema (and never mind the genre). Returning from a costume party, Arash is miles high on ecstasy and dressed as Count Dracula when the girl, imperiously skateboarding through the midnight streets, spots him out of the corner of her eye and doubles back. Her double take plays for laughs on a century of cinematic iconography, but this sublimely weird chance encounter soon turns into something approaching romance, or maybe not. Both the camera and the emotions perform a dance macabre with a chiaroscuro of impossibilities.
Allusions to film and cultural touchstones abound: Dreyer’s seminal 1932 film Vampyr, the Bela Lugosi template, and even the West’s highly imaginative media-fed mental picture of what Iran presumably looks like are all called up and craftily exploited. Much has been written about how A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night stylistically resembles Jarmusch’s breakout film Stranger Than Paradise, but there’s more Dracula’s Daughter and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly than Jim Jarmusch here, although Amirpour’s film certainly does put a spell on you.
Speaking of which, I’d be undead if I failed to mention A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night’s phenomenal soundtrack, which not only underscores the film’s atmospheric, dreamy imagery but also establishes a retro-hip timelessness for the entire movie. Tracks by Tehran-based band Kiosk, Portland’s Morricone-influenced Federale, and UK gothpoppers White Lies help to flesh out a story that is told – sparingly, at best – in Farsi. It’s all of a piece, though. I’d go so far as to say that A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a cinematic riff on and alignment with the famed women’s rights movement “Take Back the Night.”. But, you know, with somewhat more piercing incisors.