“Are you a good boy or not?”
The comparisons are so spot-on that I knew critics before me had made the same parallels before even looking. Ana Lily Amirpour‘s debut feature A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is Jim Jarmusch cool with Quentin Tarantino swagger—an Iranian Vampire Western calling to mind Dead Man and Ghost Dog remixed through a Pulp Fiction lens. It’s a wonder no one had done it before with the way in which her titular creature of the night glides across Bad City in her pitch-black burqa, wielding justice through fear and death as though the physical manifestation of the dangerous sexuality that cloak hides from the eyes of Persian men. A lonely, quiet, and remorseful young woman, Sheila Vand‘s “Girl” is a lovelorn soul who’s accepted her solitary fate until crossing semi-innocent Arash’s (Arash Marandi) path.
Amirpour’s world is a heightened seedy underbelly of society, simultaneously an American cesspool of drug addicts and prostitutes and Iranian projection of the impurity hiding below the tenuous safety of surface appearances traditional custom has sought to uphold. It’s a city you could allow a bloodsucker to run wild in, cleaning the neighborhood of its evils so its youth no longer has to panhandle as a necessity. For every hard-working soul like Arash lie a broken man (his heroin-addled, widower father Hossein, played by Marshall Manesh), a lecherous pimp (Dominic Rains‘ Saeed), and a partying rich girl rebelling against society’s constraints (Rome Shadanloo‘s Shaydah). It’s a wonder this prowling vampire was able to relent upon meeting him since it would have been easy to assume he was as morally bankrupt as the rest.
Here’s where the love story enters along with a thematic kinship to another horror/romance in Spring. More than a few shots reminded me of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead‘s stunner—visually and aurally placing us into the tense no-man’s-land of impossible romance prevailing over the animalistic nature of a monster barely able to control her urges. Where that one relies so much on conversation, however, Amirpour relishes in the meticulous sound design possible through the silence of contemplation and internal expression. She shows amazing confidence by lingering on moments to an almost discomforting length, ratcheting up the sexual tension and lust a simple piece of fabric could never contain. Watching Vand size up her opposition, uncoiling before our eyes without even the tiniest of motions, is a feat not to be diminished.
And just as we anticipate her violent wrath, we seize at the moments she stops and measure restraint. A scene in her apartment with White Lies‘ “Death” blaring from a record player as Vand and Marandi slowly move together until the music gives way to the heartbeats pumping through his chest into her pressed ear is one for the ages. Does she lunge for the blood coursing inside his veins? Does he discover what she is, breaking through whatever wall he’s erected to block the fact she exited a house only seconds before he found the man giving his father trouble dead? Or does love prevail—calming her fear about never being accepted for who she is and providing him a reason to finally leave Bad City without regret or guilt?
The simplicity of such a conundrum is what makes the film memorable and resonant: true romance in the presence of monsters. The idea of death becoming the answer to so many problems is a provocative one also, forcing us to see each murder as a positive step towards a brave new world rather than the work of a maniac needing to be stopped. Vand’s “Girl” becomes a sort of vigilante, intrinsically able to differentiate those who should be spared and those in need of reckoning. She sizes her victims up, allowing them the chance to flee and learn their lesson via terror with few exceptions. A girl has to eat regardless, so an odd vagrant here or there to keep her satiated can’t be helped. For the most part, though, she journeys out to have fun the only way she knows how.
It’s this playfulness juxtaposed against her strength that sticks out. The way she skulks up on Milad Eghbali‘s urchin, teases Rains’ Saeed, and mirrors Manesh’s Hossein’s every move as the scared old man stumbles in withdrawal can’t help put a smile on your face despite the horror she’s capable of delivering. Her burqa becomes a Dracula’s cape of sorts, silhouetting her against the night sky in a crisp statuesque form letting only a sliver of the black and white shirt peek through the opening at its front. It flows behind her as she moves, fabricating a sense of her gliding above the pavement as she slinks after unwitting friends and foes. Her sexuality disarming men keen to experience it and her shyness allowing those who aren’t to come closer than anyone has before.
The movie may revolve around Arash and his acquaintances finding themselves confronted by this unnatural looming force in the shadows, but it’s Vand who picks and chooses who survives. Amirpour injects a few sequences of pure visual flourish—toeing the line of self-indulgence—while also allowing some scenes to play a bit too soap opera-y, but the moments that work unequivocally overcome any over-reaching missteps. In the end there exists a comical streak necessary to its success, a quality that’s able to disarm the audience from dismissing the whole as a pure genre film. It’s an art film first and foremost; an exercise in tonal atmosphere and an original take on a contemporarily tired subject. It’s an auspicious debut planting the seeds for what will surely be a memorable career.
Rating: NR | Runtime: 99 minutes | Release Date: November 21st, 2014 (USA)
Studio: Vice Films / Kino Lorber
Director(s): Ana Lily Amirpour
Writer(s): Ana Lily Amirpour