A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night
Iran/USA (2014) Dir. Ana Lily Amirpour
She’ll only come out at nights
The lean and hungry type…
….Ooh, the beauty is there
But a beast is in the heart
These lyrics from the Hall & Oates classic Maneater sum up the central figure of the feature debut from Iranian-American writer-director-musician Ana Lily Amirpour. If the Twilight franchise has neutered the vampire film genre with its romanticised teenage bent then Amirpour intends to bring it back to its creepy roots, a’la 2008’s subtle Swedish shocker Let The Right One In.
Set in the fictional Iranian suburb known as Bad City, a young man Arash (Arash Marandi) loses his prized car to local pimp/drug lord Saeed (Dominic Rains) as collateral for the late payments by his father Hossein (Marshall Manesh) for his heroin addiction. having worked to save up to reclaim his car Arash arrives at Saeed’s home only to find him dead. The perpetrator is a strange young woman (Sheila Vand) clad in her chador as she silently walks the streets at night.
The above summary details the first twenty minutes of the film and is pretty much all that can be imparted with the actually story being more a series of events occurring among a cadre of seemingly tragic citizens in this bleak ghost town setting. Amirpour offers a veritable pot pourri of styles and influences within her vampire tale that isn’t exclusively a vampire tale.
That may sound a bit glib but the nameless bloodsucker doesn’t operate on the same level as other screen vampires – sure, she has fangs, is nocturnal and feasts on blood but there is no eerie underground dwelling, or a coffin for a bed and her attacks are infrequent. At least two attacks, most notably the first one on Saeed, have a purpose beyond her own bloodlust but the girl’s moral compass remains largely ambiguous.
Arash encounters the girl one night, spaced out after a fancy dress party where he took one of his own drugs (which he stole from the dead Saeed) and dressed as Dracula. Arash becomes one of the few people girl doesn’t attack; instead they tacitly bond through a beguiling attraction and mutual sense of loneliness. The scene in which they succumb to their desires is possibly the least exciting and passion-free union in film history yet it is wonderfully touching in its simplicity and pathos laden tenderness.
Elsewhere in Bad City an aging (well thirty year-old) prostitute Atti (Mozhan Marnò) is freed from Saeed’s clutches by his demise but reluctantly continues her night work, with druggie Hossein being her most loyal client. And before the girl came along, Arash was smitten by vain rich girl Shaydah (the gorgeous Rome Shadanloo) who of course keeps the poor lad at arm’s length unless she wants something.
And a street urchin with a skateboard (Milad Eghbali) has a frightening run in with the girl, suggesting either she doesn’t like kids or she felt embarrassed to ask for a ride on his skateboard thus she felt bullying him for it was the best course of action. Unfortunately for these characters their contribution to the story is quite nebulous and has little bearing on the events – save for Atti and Hossein’s thread – along with the occasional appearance of what one assumes is a cross dresser dancing with a balloon.
It’s hard to divine exactly what the purpose of these are – do we dismiss them as a quirky indulgence to show off a camera technique or just to be obtuse as this is what one is supposed to do in an indie film? Unless one gets the visual tributes and influences of Amirpour, of which there are many, a lot of the imagery is likely to prove to be something of a distraction.
That said, Amirpour has created an interesting and eclectic universe for her story, which was actually filmed in the US and not Iran but the dialogue is still in Persian. Atash is a 1950’s rocker which his quiffed hair and Fonz-esque white t-shirt/leather jacket combo, a stark contrast to the girl with her love for the 70’s and 80’s pop culture. Saeed is the modern day tattooed and blinged up gangster rapper while Atti has an air of 60’s chic about her.
Shot in black and white the nighttime scenes featuring the girl allows Amirpour to reference the light and shadow heavy style of film noir, her chillingly still chador covered body serving as a nod to both Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of Dracula and F.W Murnau’s Nosferatu. The sparseness of Bad City is reminiscent of a Sergio Leone western before a gunfight all of which is undermined by the energetic glitz of a modern day nightclub.
Regarding the performances the only one we need discuss is that of Sheila Vand as the girl, although her elder co-stars offer plenty to the film’s dramatic weight. This PJ Harvey lookalike is shown mostly with a blank expression which she can contort into something quite terrifying on a turn, or can reveal so much pain and disenchantment with a simple shift of her eyes. Possessing beguiling screen presence and nuanced sense of character, hopefully this film is a springboard to something big for Miss Vand.
Ana Lily Amirpour clearly has many ideas as a director and is keen to experiment but her previous experience in short films is exposed when the main story runs out of steam quite early on. The aimless second half leads to a limp and anti-climatic denouement which disappoints after the first half effectively gets under one’s skin. A more focused narrative and plot was sorely needed here.
So, while this won’t be a five star review for A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night the good news is that it is a bold and refreshing counterattack to the recent spare of limp wristed vampire movies. Its initial potential may peter out by the end but it still has enough bite to appease the arthouse fans out there.