Genre-bending film experiments can often straddle the critical line, finding themselves praised for innovation just as often as they are excoriated for a lack of vision or originality. As the cinema landscape has widened thanks to the DSLR revolution, more and more of these melanges of juxtaposed ideas have managed to see the light of day. One such example is writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour’s first feature, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, a film that touts itself as the first ever Iranian Feminist Vampire Western. It is a mouthful to say and a brainful to comprehend, the sort of concept that could easily fall on either end of the quality spectrum.
The plot is predominantly concerned with Arash (Arash Marandi),a young man living on the fringes in the fictional Iranian oil town of Bad City. Saddled with his heroin-addicted father (Marshall Manesh, probably best known to American audiences for his role as Ranjit in How I Met Your Mother) and indebted to a local drug lord/pimp/general bad dude Saeed (Dominic Rains) because of him, Arash works odd jobs in the village to scrape by, having aggressively saved his money to afford his fancy muscle car. As night falls in Bad City, the town takes on a decidedly different feel, frequented by prostitutes like Atti (Mozhan Marno) and a young girl in a partial hijab and horizontal striped shirt (Sheila Vand), who stalks the streets looking for disreputable men for entirely different, entirely blood-sucking related reasons. A chance meeting between a drunken Arash and The Girl (she has no other name) ignites a volatile courtship.
Shot in delectable black and white by Lyle Vincent, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night gleefully flits from influence to influence, with different reference points corresponding to the time of day. Daylight in Bad City feels like a 1950’s greaser flick and a Mexican border drug war filtered through the lens of some old school Jim Jarmusch cool. Oil derricks pump forlornly in the background as the town struggles to survive, making Arash’s fancy, shiny car seem like the most pointed of anachronisms. As night falls, things take on a more sinister air as the predators come out to play. The night scenes are more blatantly horror-influenced, but find their central tone in common with Lost Highway-era David Lynch. What is key, though, is that while Amirpour wears her visual and tonal influences on her sleeve, the way she implements them and how they interact with and reinforce the setting and plotting for the film feels refreshing and original.
What is most intriguing about Amirpour’s approach to the vampire genre is the way she characterizes The Girl herself. She operates independently as a feminist vigilante of sorts. Her choice of prey is deliberate, finding her chief motivation as a sense of justice, most often founded in gender relations. This is make clear in the sequence during which she reveals her true nature, as she passes up easy prey to make her kill more meaningful. Her appearance is a cross of the traditional and the modern, donning a hijab but never covering her face or shirt, with its striking contrasted stripes almost glowing through the dark. The hijab flows behind her like Dracula's cape as she rides a skateboard around town and listens to New Wave and Lionel Richie. She plays with many tropes of vampire lore, from the newly minted Jarmusch hipsters of Only Lovers Left Alive to the more traditional modern Anne Rice sexy vampires, but does so in a detached and distant manner. She is strange and unique, another case of finding something original out of a cocktail of pop culture influence, but never loses that sense of danger. She is more than willing to be terrifying when the situation requires it, providing horrors on the level of other 2014 horror gems like The Babadook and Oculus. Vard is excellent in her portrayal; the camera lavishes over her youthful face and pronounced jaw line, a timeless beauty with and otherworldly charm, and a deep well of sadness trapped within her eyes. A film as dependent on juxtaposition as A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is requires a lead actress who can wear many hats, and Vand slips each on with ease.
Arash is aided by more dialogue and a better sense of home life, making his character much more transparent, but this should not detract from Marandi’s performance. He is marked by inaction and impotence; he cannot stand up to Saeed or prevent his father from spiraling back into addiction whenever he detoxes. When his car, his only prized possession, is taken from him, all he can do is punch a wall in futility. He only feels comfortable around The Girl, finding a kindred spirit in another lonesome soul. Their pairing is defined by tenderness, but that undeniable expression of tension bubbling below the surface never dissipates. The final ten minutes are a wonderful execution of the idea, leaving their fate ambiguous in a thoroughly satisfying way. Traditional resolution is not high on Amirpour’s to-do list, but this is not the sort of story that demands to be tied into a tidy bow.
With the preponderance of vampires in popular culture has come the preponderance of new and fascinating takes on the mythology of the monster. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night may find itself most in common with the Jarmusch vampire film from earlier this year, but its stark Iranian setting (as Iranian as shooting in California can be, of course) and how that culture impacts classic interpretations of vampires makes sure that Amirpour’s take on the genre always feels original. With its sumptuous cinematography, wonderfully varied and engaging soundtrack and powerful sense of character, it is the sort of film that demands attention and rewards the audience for doing so. Its deliberate pace is hypnotic, and while it can be slow at times, it is never all that difficult to remain on its wavelength, and the rewards are gratifying. Films like A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night are the reason the digital revolution has been such a boon for the independent film industry. And the field is all the better for it.