A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is more concerned with notions than the actions that other kinds of movies connect them with. In a desolate shot of an empty street or the skulking silence of a killer’s approach, it has the notion of a Western but without any of the hanging out or bravado. Money trades hands but it’s not about the money. Drugs get sold and lives get ruined but there seem to be no cops in the “Bad City” ghetto (it’s empty as a soundstage). If I called it something it would be New Wave Iranian-American Spaghetti Horror Noir (with vampires). But it isn’t about vampires and that’s the special charm new director Ana Lily Amirpour brings to a genre as worn as the prom night characters it usually features.

Arash Marandi in a white tee and pompadour opens the film in an alley, leaning on a wall like James Dean. Over the rickety Western font credits he rescues a cat and tours the ghetto of badness that sits square and silent, a movie set like a critique of movie sets, as if there’s no outside world to compare it to. Primeval oil refineries bellow in the distance. Arash clips hedges for an uptown prude and steals her earrings, regretfully, as though he would be a better sort of guy if he only knew how. He comes home to a father (Marshall Manesh) with drug debts to a snarling addict (Dominic Rains), whose Adam’s apple reads “Sex.” There isn't much plot in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (people are tightlipped in this movie). No one pretends to have an emotional dimension (especially if they have one – it's a liability in Bad City). Instead of developing, the characters experience a special kind of moral suspension in Amirpour’s cloying gaze on her desolated little town (actually filmed in SoCal -- even its grit is a movie construct). This feeling is her greatest artistic illusion.

Often a scene will take painful lengths to extend the connection between these people past social decency or the snap-happy pace of a movie that's more pleasurable to watch. In the room of the Girl (Sheila Vand), Arash approaches her from behind. Against the wilted record sounds of the Bee Gees, the Girl turns to face him with such deliberation that an act of nothingness for a faster film for Amirpour becomes a cathartic spiritual experience. Withdrawn into the luxury of her guilt for something she is compelled to do, the vampiric Girl considers draining the blood from a small boy, who reappears in the film as a passerby in Bad City like its last real pedestrian in a world of two drug addicts, three hookers, an Iranian James Dean, and a vampire. The Girl snarls into his face to be a good boy and like a vengeful spirit vows to always watch him. The chador provokes this neo-punk female rebellion, more effective in that the actions speak for the symbols. They don’t need words to become icons of their message.

Enveloping her like leather wings, the chador flutters behind the Girl as she skateboards down a hill. She wanders the town as though her eternity of youthful life has been spent watching people from the adjacent sidewalk (and listening to Lionel Richie). Arash, stoned for the first time and dressed as Dracula, stares into a streetlight as at some distant star. As the Girl approaches him, Vand gives her the sublime sense of emotionless longing that ties her to the most classic takes on creatures of the night. Yet, here it’s not a slinking venereal horror, but her numbness to the pleasures of earthly love that motivates her to look at a stoner dressed as Dracula as though she’d been looking for him for millennia (“Dracula, is that you?” It's one of the most stunning, desolate professions of longing in any horror movie). Without changing her face, the length of the shot alone tells us the story of her mythic longing, that loneliness that is really at the center of all great vampire tales. She doesn’t need a castle on an ominous hill to seem distant and sad. She just needs a hamburger, on which she looks down without a word and churns silently at the thought of eons passed, lovers gone, and the other things she's compelled to eat.

Amirpour relishes in not giving us the whole story. The Girl talks about The Beatles like she remembers them but she never mentions how. Arash breaks his hand on a wall and wears a cast for the rest of the film, as a reminder that this is supposed to be our fragile, hot-tempered main character without ever really bringing it up again. In cross-examining the image of the chador with this new wave monster rebel, Amirpour crafts a startling image of repressed terror. Her clothes and her stunning, horrific confidence become a symbol, a character that comes to mean enough in your mind to get her tattooed on your ankle. This could be the first vampire film to pull the monster all the way out of its Gothic home and push it into modern civilization. The clothes we use to hide ourselves become its wings.

But anything that comes of the symbols -- of feminism, or repression, or predation -- happens to you and not to the film. This is a film where very little happens and I'm not sure if anyone learns much of anything from it when it does. This is a movie that doesn't explain itself. It just happens to you. As the great monsters always have, the Girl makes us hide our love for her. We just deal with the feelings later, wondering if we should wish to be her Dracula, or if it would be better to set her free.

Amirpour has imbued less social critique than you'd think and more poetry into a film that has a statement of fact as its title, as a kind of dare to see more than banalities in banalities. Tomas Alfredson accomplished such a feat in 2008 with his Let the Right One In, a film so skulking and grimly poetic that the twelve-year-olds falling in love in its foreground seemed like new icons of horror for their innocent evil and unassuming grace. Despite its beautiful terror, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is too uneventful to be my favorite foreign neo-goth vampire romance procedural made in the last ten years. The film industry has hope, if I can say that.

***

Image is a screenshot from the film.

Cast & Crew

Ana Lily Amirpour

Ana Lily Amirpour

 

The Girl Sheila Vand
Arash Arash Marandi
Hossein Marshall Manesh
Saeed Dominic Rains
Atti Mozhan Marno
Shaydah Rome Shadanloo
the cat Masuka

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