Review: A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night

An Iranian vampire spaghetti western by Ana Lily Amirpour.

girl1

I know what I am going to be for Halloween next year.

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night begins not with the titular girl, but with Arash (played by Arash Marandi, an Iranian James Dean), a young man living in the fictional Iranian town of Bad City; a town replete with sadistic drug dealers, drug addicts (including Arash’s father), prostitutes, and a ditch filled with dead bodies. This last detail sounds particularly gruesome, I know, and when paired with the (knowingly) silly categorization of the film as “an Iranian vampire spaghetti western,” you would think that this would be just another campy horror B movie. But, and I cannot stress this enough, Ana Lily Amirpour’s first feature film is a subtle examination of loneliness and the often seeming impossibility of changing one’s lot in life.

The poster for the film.

The poster for the film.

I saw the film at a screening; the last in a series at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles called “The Contenders.” The annual series is organized by the Museum of Modern Art in New York and its mission is to showcase films that will have a lasting impact on the cultural landscape.

After the screening, the film’s creator, Ana Lily Amirpour, was interviewed by Roger Corman, the legendary director and horror genre master who made, along with many Edgar Allen Poe adaptations, cult classics such as Children of the Corn and The Little Shop of Horrors. Needless to say, a better pairing could not have been made.

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night grew out a short film of the same title. The very beginnings of the film can be found in Amirpour’s childhood love of Anne Rice, an early immersion in horror films, and a desire to tell a thoroughly Iranian story, though a deeply personal and fictionalized one.

Visual proof of Arash Marandi's James Dean-ness.

Visual proof of Arash Marandi’s James Dean-ness.

Amirpour didn’t grow up in Iran and has only visited once. And certainly not to film A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, which was shot in the southern California town of Taft, just shy of Bakersfield where Amirpour grew up. The film, while entirely in Farsi and populated with great Iranian ex-pat actors like Sheila Vand (playing “the girl”), could be considered more of an Iranian-flavoured fairytale. I don’t mean this to sound juvenile. Perhaps it would be better described as a removed reality; a complete and realized universe in which both the comical and the existential can be considered as two halves of the same coin. In which a vampire can just as easily dance to White Lies and ride a skateboard through the night as she can commit supremely powerful acts that leave her devastated, numb, and lonelier than ever.

I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss the film’s soundtrack here; a mix of music from Iran’s underground rock band Radio Tehran, punk courtesy of White Lies, and spaghetti-western-inspired songs written for the film by Portland-based band Federale. Crafting the sound of the film was clearly an emotional task for Amirpour, who said of the power of music, eliciting an audible sigh from the audience, “Who can describe how you want to curl up in a song and just live there?” You see this desire clearly reflected in the girl and Arash and it is one of the key strings that draw the two of them together.

Can you feel the existential anguish?

Can you feel the existential anguish?

The movie’s most enduring visual, in my opinion at least, is that of the girl dressed in her chador and striped shirt.  The chador is the traditional garment worn by Iranian women and the film’s central conceit can be traced to the moment that Amirpour put on a chador sent to her by a relative in Iran and hopped on a skateboard (Amirpour is a lifelong skateboarder). An Iranian vampire was born.

The chador could certainly be viewed as a symbol of the oppression of Iranian women. From our Western viewpoint it is often difficult to overcome instincts such as these. Amirpour noted that she felt truly powerful when she put on the chador that first time. But, she cautioned, that freedom was partially formed by the knowledge that she could take it off whenever she wanted. She was in control of her body and of the image she wished to express to the world.

This is very much the source of the vampire’s power in the film. She wears the chador precisely because she knows that it turns her into a bit of an enigma, more symbol than person. And a powerless one at that; in the eyes of those she passes on the street and, especially, to her victims. She uses this to her advantage. What transforms the garment from a symbol of oppression to a garment imbued with agency (for both the girl and for Amirpour) is when it is truly owned by the woman wearing it. When it becomes a tool for a woman to express an aspect of herself, of her own choosing, on her own terms. And to the world around her.

The girl rides her skateboard through the deserted streets of Bad City.

The girl rides her skateboard through the deserted streets of Bad City.

The film has many other striking visuals, made more striking by virtue of the film being shot in black and white. Shots of oil rigs at work appear more than once and while there are certain obvious analogies that can be drawn here (the vampiric nature of extracting oil from the earth certainly springs to mind), the perhaps more interesting element to their presence in the film is just that: their presence. They constantly move, pumping away at the earth, contributing to the sense that Bad City is a place that is not going to change and nor will the fates of those who live there. Despite how much they strive to better themselves and those around them.

“I’ve done terrible things,” the girl cautions her male suitor. By the time she warns Arash, we know this to be true.

Just a girl and her vampire fangs.

Just a girl and her vampire fangs.

I’d like to believe that most of the girl’s victims deserved what they got. I am also tempted to make a feminist argument in support of the girl’s motives and the film’s treatment of her. It would be tempting, in Amirpour’s shoes and with this brilliant conceit, to turn the girl into a caricature; into a super-feminist vampire vigilante who roams the streets of Bad City dismantling the patriarchy. But Amirpour is a deft filmmaker. Instead, she gives us a complex and, at times, enigmatic character. The girl is powerful yet achingly vulnerable and lonely. She is nameless, but we know her. She has done terrible things, yet there may be some possibility for change.

At the end of her interview with Corman, Amirpour teased us with a description of her next project, a cannibal love story set in Texas called The Bad Batch. “A real love story,” she quipped. I have no doubt that The Bad Batch will be able to be more than one thing at a time. Both a horror and a love story. A film that is seemingly pessimistic yet oddly redemptive of the potential for human beings to connect. Even if one of them is a vampire. Or a cannibal.

girl and cat

I forgot to mention the film’s other break-out star: Mazuka, the cat.

xox J

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