Budding screenwriters have it hard. There are more people writing great scripts than can be produced, let alone recognized enough for their auteur to break into the elite circles of cinematic fame. But writer and director Ana Lily Amirpour’s (“A Little Suicide”) feature film debut “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night” flags her as someone to watch. She brings a refreshingly new perspective to film, which is evident in her work. Priding itself on being the first and only Iranian Vampire Western flick ever made, “A Girl Walks Home Alone” seamlessly collages heritage and genre.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
Amirpour’s home state, California, acts as a stand-in for the fictitious Iranian Bad City. Here, everything slumps and everything is still. Moody black-and-white shots track desolate night streets and the wayward inhabitants that traverse them. Only by day do oil refineries grind on. Still, they’re no less greasy than the community surrounding the protagonist Arash (Arash Marandi, “Kunduz: The Incident at Hadji Ghafur”), a James Dean figure struggling to support his father, who turns to costly vices after his wife’s death and grows addicted to drugs and women. Next, we meet the purveyor of said drugs, a pimp with “SEX” tattooed in capital letters across his Adam’s apple. Along with him is the beautifully sad 30-year old prostitute he controls. And of course, there’s the mysterious girl walking home alone at night, a seemingly omnipresent vampire who quietly observes everything and instills her own, vengeful version of justice on Bad City.
This film can tack any number of genre labels onto its name because it draws from an astoundingly broad camp of elements. It smashes opposites together and turns the typical on its head. Already, The Girl (Sheila Vand, TV’s “State of Affairs”) ignores the cultural mandate that comes with being a girl and walks slowly, purposefully into the dead of the night. When she stands face-to-face with a sleazy pimp, we dread what’s to come, and for once we’re not scared for her – we’re scared for him. She has confrontations that, while subtle, are truly terrifying, just by the force of her all-knowing gaze.
What’s more, the film’s blend of American and Iranian cultures earns the hyphen that third-generation immigrants so desperately need: Iranian-American. The Girl dons black chador, stylized as her vampire cape, on her nightly rounds. In the all-black garment that many Americans stereotype as a sign of submissiveness, The Girl cuts a powerful, imposing figure. Yet underneath, she wears jeans and a striped T-shirt, and listens to Lionel Richie under Christmas lights and poster-strewn bedroom walls. This film – originally a short – first premiered in its full length at Sundance Film Festival under an American production company. Though the dialogue is almost entirely in Farsi, this isn’t a foreign film. It’s deeply American, representing an immigrant identity etched into the base of the Statue of Liberty – an identity lived every day by millions across the country, but one that has rarely found its way into media.
For all its intertwined conceptualism, “A Girl Walks Home” asserts itself slowly and quietly. The sparse set, minimal dialogue and long-track cinematography are impeccably complemented by a blend of Iranian-pop and American rock songs. Everything gives heed to the characters and their actions. Therein lies “A Girl Walks Home” ’s only flaw: though artistically gorgeous and intensely thought-provoking, the plot is not very complex. Nor are the characters deeply fleshed-out enough to carry the slack. Vand’s evocative performance, deftly shifting between ferocity and fragility, aloofness and determination, cannot be the only force connecting the audience to the characters. We empathize with them, but only as we might out of general curiosity. It needs to feel like we are personally linked to their fate, and we aren’t enough to understand their motivations.
Still, there’s no denying the film’s many virtues. Though a little too slow-moving than it should be, “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” balances richly layered thematic concepts and a minimal artistic vision well. It’s everything it needs to be: an unconventional romance, subtle horror, a glorious mix of campy movie genres and just exquisitely well-made.