United States. Directed by Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014. Starring Sheila Vand, Arash Marandi, Mashall Manesh. 99 minutes. In Persian, with English subtitles.
Bad City: a decaying ghost city populated by restless loners, lost souls, and exploitative creeps. Arash works his fingers to the bone for years to buy a vintage hot rod, only to lose it to a crime lord who claims it as payment for his junkie father’s debts. Atti, an aging prostitute (if 30 counts as “aging”), dreams a dream of escape that seems more ephemeral with each passing day. Party kids dose heavily and lose themselves in swirls of dance and EDM. And in the shadows, she lurks, the hijab-clad vampire girl, prowling the streets at night.
Adapted by director Ana Lily Amirpour from a graphic novel she wrote, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night styles itself “the first Iranian vampire Western.” If it’s a Western, it’s in the same sense that many John Carpenter films (such as Assault on Precinct 13 and Escape from New York) are Westerns, with the Girl standing in for the outsider/avenger. Amirpour places Bad City in Iran, but the location work trades so heavily on the familiar iconography of the rotting industrial wasteland that the one can’t help but read one’s own experiences into the imagery, a sort of Rorschach blot test. (For the record, Amirpour actually shot the film in SoCal.)
But that’s not all. The stark monotone photography and soundtrack selections–a bit of Tex-Mex guitar here, a band that sounds like a cross between Echo and the Bunnymen and the Rapture there–create a spooky, gothic mood. The sparsely populated environment gives the viewer a sense of the postapocalyptic. (It’s taking me all the self-control I have to not describe A Girl Walks Home as science-fiction.) In Bad City, Amirpour delivers a richly-realized pulp landscape. It ain’t subtle–the villain of the first act has the word SEX tattooed on his neck–but it’s never less than engrossing.
This is less of a story to be told and more of an experience to be, well, experienced, but the environment engages the audience and carries it along for the ride. The characters function on the level of archetypes and don’t require extensive development, just enough to get senses of longing, sadness, tragedy. The film requires the cast members to prioritize the physical aspects of their performances, and all of them deliver strong work. However, Sheila Vand (the Girl) shines in particular, able to communicate a universe of contradictions in a single glance. I wouldn’t have thought it possible for someone so slightly-built, standing what seems not much more than five feet and maybe a couple of inches, to loom with such menace.
Normally I shrink from making predictions, but I can say with full confidence that future commentary will regard A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night as a cult classic. If you’re interested in genre filmmaking, you owe it to yourself to see it.