There is a sense of empowerment, and undeniable cool, which pulsates within the veins of Ana Lily Amirpour’s debut film. Similar to the unnamed girl at its core, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night refuses to be defined by, or adhere to, typical conventions. Even labeling the film an “Iranian vampire western” feels too limiting as Amirpour’s narrative effortless drifts across various genres rarely feeling bound to any one in particular.
Amirpour’s hip vampire tale unfolds in the fictional Iranian town known as Bad City. A moody and desolate land, things such as poverty, drugs and prostitution are merely a part of everyday life. The sight of dead bodies piled up in an open ditch seems as common to its inhabitants as billboards are to major cities. It is a city of sin where tattoo clad drug dealers like Saeed (Dominic Rains) roam like a king feasting off of his subjects weaknesses. He freely takes what he wants, such as the car that Arash (Arash Marandi) worked hard to obtain, to cover the debts that addicts, take Arash’s father Hossein (Marshall Manesh) for example, owe him.
Unbeknownst to many in town there is something far more sinister that prowls the streets at night. A lonely chador wearing vampire (Sheila Vand) lurks under the night sky looking for suitable individuals for her next meal.
Bringing a stylish and defiant confidence to the piece, Amirpour’s does not rely on tyical vampire tropes to tell her tale. In fact, the word vampire is rarely uttered in the film. The most striking thing about A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is the way in which Amirpour plays with gender roles in the film. The beginnning of the film presents the illusion of Bad City being a typical patriarical society. Amirpour even comically includes a legal solicitor on television warning women to be prepared for when their husbands leave them for a younger woman. The obvious joke is that it is women, well the lowly vampire at least, who hold all the true power in the film.
It is the men who must be in fear of walking home alone at night. Afraid of this unknown predator who not only stalks but, in the case of the man who actions are mimicked, toyed with as well. Aside from making the majority of the victims men who have done sinful things, Amirpour emphasize her point even further by including a scene where the vampire warns the only pure male in town, a innocent young boy (Milad Eghbali), to grow up to be good or he will face harsh consequences.
The gender reversal also adds a unique layer to the love story at the center of the tale. Arash first meets the vampire while on his way home from a costume party. Dressed like Dracula, and high on ecstasy, the barely mobile Arash assures the girl that he will not hurt her, though it is clear to the audience that he is actually the one in danger. When their mutual attraction manifests back at the girl’s apartment – captured beautifully in a sensual non-verbal scene – Arash draws her close and covers her with his cape. In a traditional vampire narrative this would be the moment were Dracula strikes his victim. However, Amirpour plays it more tender and tense. The audience is the one drawn in, sitting on the edge of their seats wondering if the vampire will succumb to the temptation of biting Arash’s neck.
Featuring gorgeous black and white cinematography, and a soundtrack that is as genre bending as the film itself, Amirpour manages to bring a hypnotic allure to every frame of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. The film feels perfectly at home with the new era of hip and deliciously romantic vampire flicks, like Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive for example, whose settings play just as important a role as the characters themselves. By setting the film in Iran, Ana Lily Amirpour plays with the audience’s conventional notions of both the land and the vampire genre in general. This is why images such as the vampire riding a skateboard down the street, with her chador flowing in the wind as if she was flying, are stamped into the audience’s mind long after the film is over.
While an auspicious debut, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night does tend to indulge in its artistry a bit too much at times. A few scenes run longer than they should, and certain characters, like the prostitute Atti (Mozhan Marnò), feel underdeveloped. Of course these things are to be expected from a first feature. What Amirpour achieves with this film far outweighs its minor shortcomings. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a wonderfully original, and scrumptiously clever, film that dismantles traditional notions of genre and gender in an invigorating way. It confidently marks the arrival of a director who audiences should keep an eye on.
A Girl Walks Home Along at Night begins its exclusive run at the TIFF Bell Lightbox today.