A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is the debut feature by Ana Lily Amirpour, an English-born Iranian-American director now resident in Los Angeles. Ostensibly a Jim Jarmusch-style existential vampire tale with a few spaghetti western tropes added for good measure, it’s a striking and moody film shot in (beautifully-lit) black and white, and one that is heavily reliant on its carefully-constructed style: there is much use of shallow depth of field here, with plenty of interesting images created as a result, while a dreamy, narcotic haze pervades.
The link between drug addiction and the vampire’s constant thirsting for blood has been made repeatedly in cinema, from Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction to last year’s Jarmusch film Only Lovers Left Alive, which had more than a whiff of heroin chic about it (even though the drug itself doesn’t feature). It does appear in Amirpour’s film, its use glorified to an extent by unnecessary shots of the ritual of shooting up, but interestingly she gives equal time to the other late night choices of certain characters: coke and ecstasy. Dealing in the latter is Arash (Arash Marandi), a gardener and handyman by trade, whose addict father (Marshall Manesh) has run up huge debts to a local thug and pimp (Dominic Rains).
But wait; I’m getting ahead of myself. It seems somehow wrong to be discussing the male characters first in a review for a movie that is far more notable for its women. Living in the same area as the three mentioned above – the fictional ‘Bad City’ – is Sheila Vand’s unnamed vampire, an enigmatic figure who we either see wearing a chador as she stalks men on the streets at night or lolling around playing records at home in a stripey t-shirt (not that I want to keep mentioning Jarmusch, but the film fetishises vinyl in much the same way as he warmly celebrated analogue equipment in Only Lovers). In her black cloak the vampire cuts a menacing figure on the dimly-lit streets, appearing suddenly in shot and with the ability to move swiftly around her targets, though she is also humanised by her get-up: part shoegazing indie kid, part Anna Karina, she sports Converse All Stars, black jeans, a ’60s haircut and uses a skateboard as her preferred mode of transport.
This vampire is judge as much as she is executioner, assessing her victims using an unconfirmed moral code before tearing at the necks of some and allowing others off the hook. Although initially it seems she only kills those who have sinned in some way or other, or are inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’, her actions do become ambiguous: the vampire acts as a protector of sorts to prostitute Atti (Mozhan Marnò) and she kills two men who abuse Atti in different ways; however an attack on a drunk in an alleyway, possibly a homeless man, suggests that she is only stalking men who have lost control and are somehow in thrall to their vices; or that she is simply not as beholden to a code of conduct as she first seems.
After draining the desired blood she dumps the deceased unceremoniously into a grim roadside open grave that appears to be invisible to mere mortals. Eventually circumstance leads the vampire to Arash – in one of the film’s frequent amusing scenes – and a simple love story subsequently plays out, with the notion of the vampire’s true nature a constant threat to Arash’s life. He is spared, as is a small boy (Milad Eghbali) who – in true spaghetti western style – is often present, watching events unfold.
Amirpour’s film has strong feminist leanings, flipping the expected consequences of the title, while its religious symbolism demands just as much attention, particularly the way in which costumes are used. The importance placed on the chador is interesting given the criticisms and connotations it brings to mind; the other female characters in the film (Atti and Shaydah (Rome Shadanloo)) wear high heels and expensive-looking designer outfits, and their revealing dresses certainly contrast starkly with the vampire’s clothes. The two human characters are poles apart but they share a style that could easily be described as ‘western’, in the sense that the term is used as an insult by some Muslims, while the vampire’s traditional, conservative dress covers her body but not her nature. She also contrasts strongly with Arash, whose own look is based around one of the 20th Century’s most recognisable American movie stars: James Dean. There is a strong sense of conflicting cultures here, which is unsurprising given the writer-director’s upbringing, but it has been realised with a confident visual flair. The eclectic soundtrack, a mix of east, west and mariachi, is another ingredient for the melting pot.
As a horror film this is largely free of gore or scares, while the family drama sub-plot is disappointingly slight; there isn’t much to the love story, either, which is reliant on the coolness of its two protagonists and, by the end, the cuteness of a cat. Additionally the spaghetti western elements (the boy, the trumpets, the dusty barren landscape) do jar a little, but I must admit it’s all carried out with an infectious enthusiasm and a stylish swagger that had me hooked from the first minute to the last. Somehow the mishmash of genres holds together and A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night just works, while its plethora of monochromatic images fit the pulpy material well. Bad City is, in reality, the small Californian town of Taft, and it’s amusing to ponder how riled some of the US’s more insular citizens would feel if they knew just how convincing it is as an Iranian location, but it’s a location well-used and shot with verve by cinematographer Lyle Vincent. Vincent makes a feature of the sparsity of the buildings and the heavy machinery of a power plant on the edge of town, picking out several silhouetted derricks and smokestacks with an artist’s eye, while his camera absolutely loves the actors, ensuring that this is a movie packed with frame-filling close-ups. Marandi takes advantage, but the star here is Vand, whose piercing gaze lingers in the mind long after the house lights have been switched on.
There are times when this film seems too cool for school, and there are one or two other faults that also ought to be mentioned: Amirpour forgets all about Shadanloo’s intriguing character in the second half, for example, while on occasion the landscape is recognisably American, but in truth it’s all forgivable and the pros far outweigh the cons. This is an intriguing debut, confidently shot, with flashes of sly wit and lashings of ennui.
Directed by: Ana Lily Amirpour.
Written by: Ana Lily Amirpour.
Starring: Sheila Vand, Arash Marandi, Mozhan Marnò, Marshall Manesh, Dominic Rains, Rome Shadanloo.
Cinematography: Lyle Vincent.
Editing: Alex O’Flinn.
Running Time: 101 minutes.