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 Rio 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 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 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 a white bread prude up town 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 is little plot in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. The characters each dress in the surety of their archetypes more than in actions. No one pretends to an emotional dimension (especially if they have one – a liability in Bad City). Instead of developing, the characters experience a special kind of moral suspension in Amirpour’s cloying, often awkward gazes on her desolated little town (actually filmed in SoCal). This feeling is her greatest artistic illusion.
Often a scene will take painful lengths to extend the human connection passed social decency or the snap-happy pace of a fully pleasurable viewing. 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 Withdrawn into the luxury of her guilt for something she is compelled to do, the vampiric Girl considers draining the blood from a small boy, who reappears in the film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, and an Iranian James Dean. The Girl snarls into his face to be a good boy and like a vengeful spirit of abused womanhood vows to watch him always. 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 in even the most passive viewer’s mind (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night has, and needs, very few).
Enveloping her like leather wings, the chador flutters behind her as the Girl skateboards down a hill. She wanders the town as though her apparent 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 Universal take 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 on a stoner dressed as Dracula as though she’d been looking for him for millennia (“Dracula, is that you?”). Without one alteration of her face, the length of the shot that slinks in after her reins in this mythic longing that is really in the soft palette of all the 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 rarer feasts than this.
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 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 rebel feminist, Amirpour crafts a startling image of repressed terror. But in the realm of culture critique, the self-congratulations awarded all around may not be as well-deserved as it fancies itself to be. The crisp, explicit black and white scheme inserts A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night into the appropriate tonal history, clear enough to even be a critique of that history, but it’s still a movie where very little happens to almost no one.
Amirpour might have imbued less critique 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 seem like new icons of vampire horror for their innocent evil and unassuming grace. Despite its beautiful horrors, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is not my favorite foreign neo-goth vampire romance procedural made in the last ten years. The film industry must have hope, if I can say that.
Cast & Crew
Ana Lily Amirpour
Ana Lily Amirpour
|The Girl||Sheila Vand|