What do you think of when you hear the words “a girl walks home alone at night?” Is there a specific image that creeps into your brain? Is it scary? Is it dull? Does it involve vampires? It does now. Take all of your preconceived notions about vampirism, flip them on their heads, throw them in a blender with a healthy mixture of French New Wave, expressionism, and Jim Jarmusch and you have Ana Lily Amirpour’s feature length directorial debut, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Hailed as the first Iranian Vampire Western ever made (although it was filmed in Bakersfield, California), A Girl feels like more a fever dream than a traditional film. With its shallow field of depth, expressionist shadows, and haunting music, it’s the kind of movie that’s packed to the brim with style and doesn’t seem to bother much with plot (in a good way).
Amusingly, A Girl begins with a boy walking home alone. In the imaginary dusty oil town Bad City, Arash (Arash Marandi) is a James Dean copycat with a cool car, a huge cat, and a junkie for a father. When Arash’s father Hossein (Marshall Manesh) can’t pay Saeed (Dominic Rains), the notorious local drug dealer, he responds by taking the only thing Arash cares about, his ’57 Thunderbird. Unfortunately for Saeed, he picks up the wrong girl on his way home that night. When Arash shows up at his place to get his car back, Saeed is dead. But leaving his apartment is a beautiful woman cloaked in a long black chador (Sheila Vand), who floats through the streets at night hunting the bad men of Bad City. What follows is a love story that is both hauntingly surreal and absurdly stylish.
Amirpour’s influences shine right through the film. You can see her interest in German expressionism in every shadow. Each shot of the dusty oil machinery evokes a spaghetti western. Not to mention, every jump-cut to a woman dancing alone (it happens at least twice) feels like the start of a French New Wave movie. While Amirpour borrows from quite a few genres and directors, the movie feels surprisingly fresh. Even her take on the vampire, the creature that has been modernized and revived more than any other movie monster, crosses into new and interesting territories. A part of what makes Amirpour’s vampire interesting, is that like Nosferatu, you don’t actually learn that much about her. You know that she drinks blood and that she’s a decent skateboarder, but you never even learn her name. She’s entirely unpredictable, and it’s one of the things that keeps Sheila Vand’s character creepy.
Amirpour even manages to draw from Jarmusch without rehashing his super cool vampire film Only Lovers Left Alive. While both of the movies go hard on style and play fast and loose with plot, Jarmusch’s very much feels like an examination of boredom and what it’s like for people who have known each other for centuries to hang out. Whereas A Girl, focuses far more on strange surrealism of Bad City. The imaginary location itself is almost as important a character as Arash and Vand’s vampire. It’s a grim sort of dusty ghost town marred with heavy machinery and not much else. Throughout the film, Amirpour employs incredibly shallow depth of field, so that key people stay in focus, but the world behind them turns into a blur of shapes and light. Pairing these dreamy shots with sharp jump cuts to loud and feral looking machinery portrays Bad City like a lopsided fantasy town where stark reality and magic coexist. It’s a slightly out of focus place. The kind that feels like you’re on the edge of a dream when you’re there.
Even the music and sounds in the movie play with the magical and realistic dichotomy. One moment, Vand is dancing seductively to pulsing Euro pop and the next she’s killing to bombastic organs. There’s even Persian crooning to represent the difficulties of loving a vampire. The rare scenes without music over emphasize the sounds of Bad City. As Vand stalks men down alleyways, we hear the loud crunch of the gravel under her prey’s foot, or the grinding sound of her skateboard as she rolls down a sidewalk.
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is the kind of movie that could easily alienate your traditional American audience. It’s in black and white, there’s subtitles, and the plot is definitely subservient to the look and feel of the film. Despite that, Amirpour managed to create something that felt new and compelling out of tropes that could have very easily fallen flat. Plus, if you get nothing out of this movie, you’ll at least feel 100 times cooler for having watched it.