People are living in the Iranian town of Bad City, but there is very little life. A dry riverbed is home to an ever-growing pile of dead bodies that no one seems to notice or care about, the streets are mostly empty of people but saturated in their despair and the only constant is the hum of oil well machinery pulling the earth’s black life-blood from beneath the surface.
Arash (Arash Marandi) stands apart with his blue jeans, white tee-shirt and classic American car – one it took him 2,191 days of work to afford – but it’s his ambition for something more than this dead-end town can offer that keeps him moving. His dreams take a hit thanks to his junkie father and a local thug, but something dark and wondrous is just around the corner. Drifting through the night is a young woman (Sheila Vand) whose casual dress is complemented by a jet black chador, and while she’s a girl of very few words she’s not shy about making her intentions known. Sometimes it’s feasting on the blood of the town heavy, other times it’s dancing alone to American pop music, but when she crosses paths with Arash both of them discover a partner who may just be perfect in their imperfections.
You’d be forgiven for being immediately turned off at the idea of a black & white “Iranian vampire western,” but to avoid A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night based on an official tagline that ultimately tells you very little would be an unfortunate mistake. Writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour’s feature debut is a gorgeously-photographed and highly unconventional vampire tale about the willful ignorance sometimes required to see the best in the people we suck on and sometimes even love.
Arash benefits from a bounty of drugs and cash the girl leaves behind after a bloody kill – a pimp prone to initiating conquests by putting his finger in mouths sees that finger pointed back in his direction – and enters into the drug dealing game while she continues to stalk the night. One of the film’s many memorable scenes and images sees her mirroring an old man from across the street. She stays silent as he goes from confusion to irritation to terror, and knowing what she’s capable of we watch this bit of playfulness unsure of where it will end. The same holds for her encounter with a local street urchin who she catches walking the streets late at night. “Are you a good boy?” she asks, and the hair stands up on our necks as our hearts swoon.
Amirpour’s script is something of a hazy dream as we watch these two paths cross and intermingle, unmoored by plot and often without the benefit of dialogue, but we’re never left in the proverbial dark. We understand these characters and their motivations even as everyone speaks Farsi and none of the traditional vampire trappings rear their head. The couple’s first real conversation occurs while he’s high on Ecstasy and dressed as Dracula, but when they return to her apartment it’s their silence that speaks volumes as accompanied by the White Lies’ “Death” and the spinning of a disco ball illuminating her pop music postered walls. They slowly come together until they’re close enough for her to feel and hear the blood pumping in his veins.
The script’s carefully crafted atmosphere is aided even more by cinematographer Lyle Vincent’s frequently stunning photography. Deep, rich blacks highlight the faces and textures of the film’s world, and several sequences mesmerize in their simple yet striking beauty. One scene featuring the girl gently riding a skateboard towards us along the middle of the lamp-lined street, her chador billowing in the air like a vampire’s cape, instantly captures the attention as an indelible clash between culture/tradition and the vitality of youth.
A parallel story-line involving a prostitute in her thirties named Atti (Mozhan Marnò) reveals the only other character hoping to leave the purgatory of Bad City. She and the girl form a friendship of sorts, and it’s no coincidence that they both feed on certain breeds of men – albeit in different ways – to stay strong and ready to move in whichever direction life takes them. Atti (and Marnò’s down but not out performance) holds the attention, but you can’t help but hope for her scenes (as well as those with Arash’s father) to move a bit faster solely so we can return to the girl.
Obviously the script has made the title character more compelling by simple virtue of her affliction, but it’s Vand who brings her to such bewitching life. Her large, bright eyes transfix and hypnotize as if her vampiric powers were real (and could operate through the screen), and she radiates an intense mix of sadness and sensuality, innocence and long-gestating aggression. She’s a twenty-something in a cape and a Where’s Waldo shirt, but she also emanates a century’s worth of wisdom, experience and loss.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is an acquired taste that I’d gladly keep selfishly laid across my tongue, but at the same time I can’t help but want to share it. Ignore the admittedly fantastic poster and its implication that this is a horror film, and instead seek this gem out for its unusual beauty and power to stay in your mind days and weeks after viewing.
The Upside: Gorgeous b&w photography; Sheila Vand delivers a character who’s seductive, playful and deadly; dark sense of humor; soundtrack mixes electronica and spaghetti western music; unconventional take on vampires; rare optimism
The Downside: Atti’s story could be tightened
On the Side: The film was shot in Taft, CA.