Director: Ana Lily Amirpour
Producer: Ana Lily Amirpour
Writer: Ana Lily Amirpour
Stars: Sheila Vand, Arash Marandi
TRIGGER WARNING: THIS REVIEW MAKES MENTION OF SEXUAL ASSAULT AND HEROIN INJECTIONS. (As always, see this post’s tags for trigger warnings for the film itself.)
You think you know him. He leans back, shoulder casually braced against sun-bleached wood. White tee, tight jeans, cigarette clenched between his lips, sunglasses obscuring his face. He is James Dean, you think. And he nearly is. After a few moments of cool stillness, flattened in black-and-white, he climbs through the slats and, after a second, climbs back through, a cat in his arms. Arash turns, walks away, and Kiosk’s “Charkhesh E Pooch” plays. So begins the first Iranian Vampire Western.
Arash (Arash Marandi) is not James Dean, and more than a picket fence separates him from others. When he finally arrives at his car at the end of the title sequence, it is a smart little convertible, compact and gleaming. A small boy, the Street Urchin—he is otherwise unnamed—has followed him there, begging. Arash tells him, good-naturedly: “Kid, how many times do I have to tell you? I don’t have money.”
The street urchin is as incredulous as we are. “With a car like this?”
“Do you know how many days I worked to buy this car?” He gets in, starts the car. “Two thousand, one hundred and ninety-one days.”
This is only the viewer’s first indication that nothing is what it seems.
Arash is no suave bad boy, but a rather sweet, bumbling young man. Motherless, poor, and burdened with caring for his father, Hossein—who, in his grief, has surrendered to heroin addiction—Arash is only one of the lonely souls who inhabit ‘Bad City.’ There, prostitution, drugs, and violent crime mix against the gothic backdrop of the local power plant belching smoke into the sky. Little do the people of Bad City know that the loneliest of them all might be a beautiful and strange vampire (Sheila Vand), who kills only those who lack compassion: the men of the city.
The vampire—known only as “The Girl”—stalks the streets of Bad City by night. Her very presence is alarming—against the bare streetlights and ghostly, silent houses floating in the background, she is merely a dark, ominous silhouette, draped in her hijab.
She has a thirst not just for blood, but for revenge—for this is not only a variation on the spaghetti western, but on the feminist revenge film (also called “the rape-revenge”). While she is not literally raped—nor is anyone in the film—the women of Bad City are habitually violated by the men who occupy positions of power. Saeed, known also as simply “The Pimp,” slings drugs and sex, expecting his every whim to be satisfied in return; Hossein is self-serving in the deluded hedonism of addiction. The Girl, it seems, has seen it all—and, indeed, sees all—which has granted her wisdom ancient beyond her years. It is she who settles the score. She is intimately familiar with the past—Madonna, Michael Jackson, and the Bee Gees grace her bedroom wall—and knows the future, too. Grasping the little Street Urchin by the collar, she bares her fangs, demands: “Are you a good boy? Tell the truth,” and “Till the end of your life, I’ll be watching you.”
This is the stuff of heady, rich filmmaking, the kind of cinema that made me fall so hard for film that it made the heartbreak of my first love seem like nothing more than a momentary hormone imbalance. Critics are quick to compare Ana Lily Amirpour to Quentin Tarantino, but given the intricate, painterly care she applies to each and every frame, she is far more likely to be a contemporary of Jim Jarmusch. Jarmusch is a personal hero of mine—he’s from Akron, Ohio, the largest city in proximity to my hometown—and director of such cinematic treasures as STRANGER THAN PARADISE (1984)—this is the film that changed my life, the one that was the urgent whisper in my ear: You have to dedicate your life to this—and ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE (2013). It’s not just that Jarmusch shares Amirpour’s penchant for stylish long takes; they both see in vampirism a poignant representation of the insurmountable loneliness that comes with their dreadful knowledge of humanity.
Sound may be equally as important as the striking visuals in A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT. Even beyond the soundtrack, which is as meticulously crafted as the visual aspects of the film, sound is key. The diagetic whisper of crickets chirping softly on Halloween night builds tension more powerfully than even the most vigorous orchestral score. Saeed’s ever-present cigarette sizzles, a sinister noise that signals danger. Dialogue, on the other hand, is sparse. The blaring cacophony of Federale’s “Black Sunday”—if you’re anything like me, you’ll absolutely have to download the soundtrack to A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT immediately after screening—elaborates precisely what A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT is, what it miraculously manages to be: a lush, gothic spaghetti western in Iran.
I am frequently accused of being too harsh a critic, too tough on writers and artists, too unforgiving in my opinions. And yet, faced with the challenge of reviewing A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT, I find that I can’t overstate the unique mastery of Ana Lily Amirpour’s directorial debut. The film stands alone. Cynical as I am, I can’t wrap my mind around it: what can I make of what seems to be a genuine miracle, perhaps the most glorious art horror film in existence, shot in 24 days in a Californian suburb by a director still green, straight out of UCLA? Perhaps you all can help me with this. Whatever the case, don’t deprive yourself of A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT any longer than you need to. See it as soon as you can and soak it in—my advice is to give yourself over to it, in the blissful surrender that only true art demands.
In the scenes where The Girl bites in, the gore is minimal, but all the more striking for it.
The dread caused by the vampire’s shadow, cast on the Iranian streets by night …
Will there be a man who treats women compassionately, one who The Girl need not strike down?
“Till the end of your life, I’ll be watching you … “
But you knew that already.