A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is the second vampire film this year that redeems the genre from schlock and Twilight. It also isn’t the type of film one usually expects from an Iranian filmmaker, though it has a social consciousness informed by the oppressive society that forces that country’s filmmakers to play with subversion in their storytelling. With this film, director Ana Lily Amirpour graduates from short films to her first feature. Working from her own screenplay and expanding on an earlier short film, she does not turn to the usual influences of the vampire film, and her bloodsucker is not treated as your regular creature of the night.
Only credited as “the Girl” in the film’s credits, Sheila Vand plays the vamp with an ethereal, hip quality that will allow you to buy it when petty drug dealer Arash (Arash Marandi) falls for her, even though he is in a drug-addled stupor at the time they meet. He has stumbled away from a costume party dressed as Dracula. As he stands mesmerized by a suburban street lamp, she approaches, already established in the film as a killer draped in a chador who creeps through the dark streets of “Bad City.” Arash musters some subtle charm and says he is lost. He does not know it, but this young woman is behind the violent murder of a drug dealer/pimp (Dominic Rains) who has hooked his father (Marshall Manesh) on heroin and stolen Arash’s restored 1957 Ford Thunderbird. It is thanks to her that he has his car back and has found lucrative job selling ecstasy pills.
Just considering the place of male-female roles in Iranian culture explored in that boiler plate is enough to merit surprise for this film that seems to come from Iran. How did Amirpour get away with it? She’s actually based in L.A. and born in the UK to Iranian parents. She even spent time living in our hometown of Miami before settling in Bakersfield, near L.A., which stands in for “Bad City.” It’s the female who is setting things right, for it is her actions that takes care of the oppressor of the father and son. In another scene, the Girl confronts a street urchin (Milad Eghbali), asking him repeatedly, “Are you a good boy or are you a bad boy?” as she leans ever closer to his neck. There is honor in this vampire, looking to set things right for the future of Iran.
Despite its grave social awareness, this film is above all witty, fun and atmospheric. Shot in luminous anamorphic black and white, the cinematography by newcomer Lyle Vincent will take your breath away. Its quality of image, from obtuse angles to its stark contrast, recalls Rumble Fish, which the filmmaker credits as inspiration in her Indiegogo page. The production design also pays tribute to the 1983 film by Francis Ford Coppola, which, in full disclosure, I must admit is my all-time favorite movie. Amirpour gives the setting a strange timeless quality by giving Arash a classic car and having him dress in a plain white T-shirt and jeans, something Coppola also set out to do with his film. David Lynch is also a strong influence. The backdrop of an industrial setting, which dominates the screen in brief scene transitions featuring giant silos and oil pumps creaking and rumbling, as they suck fluids from the landscape, recalls Lynch’s 1977 feature debut Eraserhead. Also leading one to think of Lynch is the film’s sound design, which includes the ambient noise of the semi-industrial town where the story unfolds and the alien drone that marks the first mysterious appearance of the Girl.
The lush ambiance of this film would not be complete without a special music soundtrack. It not only includes Iranian pop music, which features elements like bouzouki mixed with electric guitars, but also features a great scene when the girl puts on a record by White Lies in her bedroom lined with posters that include Michael Jackson and Madonna in the ’80s. She plays the oh-so appropriate “Death” to the drugged-out Asar, as they slowly turn to face each other for the first half of the song.
The film has style to spare, and that’s why it’s so easy to forgive its inconsistent story-line. When the Girl gets her fangs on the drug dealer his actions are as meek as you would expect from the dimmest of horror movie victims. Maybe its homage, but there are also moments of convenience that seem like easy shortcuts in narrative. However, as soon as you might feel the need to wonder or question the drama, Amirpour will surprise you with some other witty moment of flair with her filmmaking that will bring a smile. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is truly one of the freshest and lightest films to come out of Iran that does not forget its milieu and makes for one of the wittiest additions to the vampire film genre.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is not rated, runs 99 minutes and is Persian with English subtitles. It exclusively opens in South Florida on Friday, Dec. 12, at 7 p.m., at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which provided a screener link for the purpose of this review. For more screening dates across the US, see the film’s official website.