Iranian western meets vampire flick in ‘A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night’
With a wee-hours atmosphere as perfectly evocative as its title, “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” unfolds in an imaginary Iran — the homeland of someone who has never been there. Writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour was born in London, raised in Florida and California, educated at UCLA, and her self-described “Iranian vampire spaghetti western” is a fantasia set in the mythical Bad City, an underpopulated wasteland hard by an oil field, the hydraulic pumps swinging up and down like grazing dinosaurs. Daylight is difficult to come by even in the daytime; and at night, the freaks come out to play.
Some of them are what you’d expect, junkies like the aging failure Hossein (Marshall Manesh), prostitutes like the no longer young Atti (Mozhan Marno), predators like the tattooed drug-dealing pimp Saeed (Dominic Rains). Others are more spectral. A somber, nameless woman (Sheila Vand) ghosts through the city’s nighttime streets, her chador spreading behind her like bat wings. Occasionally she travels by skateboard, seeming to glide across the earth. When she spies someone on whom she can feed, her fangs pop down with an appalling little snick.
Shot on the mean streets of Taft, Calif., “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” takes its sweet time and has been shot in an inky black and white that hides as much as it reveals. Comparisons have been made to the films of Jim Jarmusch and early David Lynch, both warranted. Amirpour wears her influences like a badge of honor but she also has a nascent sensibility of her own, arguably more feminine and certainly more sensual. The film’s one innocent (aside from a nosy street urchin played by Milad Eghbali) is Arash (Arash Marandi), a handsome young laborer whose father is the junkie and who early on loses his prize ’57 T-Bird to the gangster Saeed in payment for Pop’s habit. Even before Arash guesses the true nature of the woman haunting the streets of Bad City, he recognizes her as a fellow outsider. This is a love story between the film’s least corrupted character and its most.
It probably wouldn’t work if not for Vand’s sheer presence as the bloodsucker. The less she moves, the spookier and more alluring she seems; the character exudes the patient sadness of someone who has all the centuries in the world. “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” has been expanded from an eight-minute short, and while another director might pad the longer version with plot, Amirpour opens up the spaces between her characters and the things they do. At times, huge gulfs of screen time elapse as the movie steeps us in its world. The cryptic romance between Arash and the vampire is the slowest of slow dances, pitched to an ear-tickling soundtrack of Iranian émigré rock and post-Sergio Leone twang.
This will be your cup of AB-positive or it won’t; and to be honest, “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” treads water more than once. Where a movie like, say, Lynch’s “Eraserhead” or Jarmusch’s “Only Lovers Left Alive” keeps us rapt even when nothing seem to be happening (or nothing explicable), Amirpour has an eye for striking characters and visuals but not yet the rigorous control and uniqueness of imagination to keep this delightful, diseased bubble aloft for 99 minutes.
The key word in that last sentence is “yet.” For now, this filmmaker has a vision, the ambition to see it realized, and an exile’s sense of tenderness for the lost and lonely. “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” is an unsettling statement of intent from an artist who clearly plans to be around for the long haul.