A girl does frequently walk home alone at night in Ana Lily Amirpour's debut feature. Sometimes she glides, on a comandeered skateboard, down urban thoroughfares blasted solitary, through ghostly suburban streets. All of these nocturnal movements taking place in the Iranian nether world called Bad City. But like so much about Ms. Amirpour's original and assured narrative twisting, the last person whose safety we need worry about in Bad City is the young woman in the striped shirt and flowing chador.
The writer and director has apparently described her film as an "Iranian vampire spaghetti western." Such are the cultural mash-ups that emerge from the speech and upbringing of Ana Lily Amirpour. Her description might sound like a bizarre story pitch, but it's fairly apt. More unlikely than the concept is how well she makes it work.
Like the westerns of Sergio Leone and others, Amirpour has taken an American genre, shaken it up and let it settle on unfamiliar ground. One of the surprises, the ironies of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is the unfamiliar ground is actually American, the streets of Taft, California standing in for Bad City. So, we have an Iranian vampire film, starring Iranian actors, spoken in Farsi - all of this transpiring in a landscape eerily familiar, believably different. Most of all, we have a young filmmaker who has created a world of her own, in which the influences, the place and particular language uttered are all subordinate to her vision, to a story a universally human.
One of those possible influences is the French New Wave. Conscious or not, "A Girl Walks Home" does share the French movement's filtering of Americana through it's own cultural prism. Ms. Amirpour has gone about a first feature with all the confidence of early of an Godard or Truffaut, although she seems less eager to impress than the men of La Nouvelle Vague through their early films. As with the French, there is (was) genuine affection for American films, music, automobiles, etc.; for American culture, pop or otherwise, insidious though it may be. Ms. Amirpour grew up in California after her parents emigrated from Iran. She's more likely to reference Back to the Future in interviews than A bout de souffle.
The presence of some of American culture's more seductive tokens begin from the first scene of "A Girl Walks Home." So too does Ms. Amirpour's thwarting of expecations that such objects might arouse. We see Arash (Arash Marandi), clad in white t-shirt and black Levi's, somewhere between James Dean and Brando perhaps. First seen leaning against a wooden fence, smoking a cigarette, an immemorial pose for young turks on film and off, Arash climbs into the wooden enclosure and pulls out a cat. Hardly the most badass of gestures, but the cool is temporarily restored when he drives off in his 1957 Thunderbird Convertible.
Much as he might look and drive the part, Arash is really not much of a rebel after all, causeless or otherwise. The handsome young man is a generally passive character in the action of the film. He can offer little resistance when drug dealer and pimp Saeed (Dominic Rains), takes his car keys and drives off in that sleek Thunderbird for which he saved 2191 days. Arash is equally feckless with the cause of the repossession: his father, Hossein (Marshall Manesh), in debt to Saeed. Hossein languishes about the pen-like enclosure of their cramped home's living room, shooting up between his toes, lolling in post-fix stupor, or blatantly freaking out. Only after Arash crosses paths and capes, as it were, with The Girl (so credited), does he begin to show any initiative in dealing with his life in Bad City.
It is the seemingly meek "Girl" (Sheila Vand) who asserts herself at will on the scant population of the city. She glides about the lonely streets, occasionally sinks her fangs into an unsuspecting neck, or scares straight The Street Urchin (Milad Eghbali). "Are you a good boy," her menacing question to the boy as she looms before him before letting him go unscathed (albeit without his skateboard).
Typical of its mix of worlds, this film's young vampire is part East, part West. She dons her chador in public, but wears beneath it a striped shirt reminiscent of that worn by Jean Seberg in Breathless. When she returns home, the chador is usually discarded, revealing a head of short black hair; not Seberg-short, but distinctly cropped. The Girl's bedroom wall is plastered with the likes of Madonna and the Bee Gees.
As one might expect, it's not an iPod that our young vampire plugs in for a solitary dance party. Rather a stereo of perhaps 60's or 70's vintage, on whose turntable The Girl lowers the stylus on her vinyl LPs. Once again, the film surprises expectations with its nimble soundtrack, blaring neither some predictably moody R & B from yesteryear, nor the lighter dance stylings of those pop stars featured on her bedroom wall. Instead, the film's music draws from contemporary Iran (Radio Tehran, Kiosk), the Middle East (Bei Ru), the post-punk (or pop, depending on your point of view) stylings of the English band White Lies, and the ghost of Ennio Morricone by way of Portland's Federale.
Although Ms. Amirpour has said she structured entire sequences in "A Girl Walks Home" around certain tracks, the music utilized is impressive not only in its selection, but the manner in which it is usually heard in the film. There's not much in the way of musical montage here, that most common of stylistic shortcuts (Martin Scorcese has often renedered himself little more than an accomplished director of music videos). Usually, the songs emerge more organically, whether in the The Girl's playing of records at home, a dance club scene, or a memorable sequence when Saeed grinds in front of The Girl in his raffish flat, just prior to receiving his just deserts.
Dominic Rains as the highly-tattoed Saeed, is one of a collection of Persian actors and artists that Ana Lily Amirpour gathered for "A Girl Walks Home." Like Rains, most are striking and have real presence before the camera, regardless of their acting experience. The virtual lack of a false note across all the film's performances attests not only to the talent of all these performers, but the degree to which they clearly bought in to Ms. Amirpour's concept. The film frequently belies the relative inexperience of its first time the writer and director, particularly in her ability to establish comfort and cohesion, to elicit such natural work. Perhaps part of that cohesion derives from the fact that the film, like its imaginary Bad City, apparently served as a kind of alternate Iran for most of its participants.
There is a love story that ultimately propels the action of "A Girl Walks Home," but like everything else about the film, it proceeds in all but expected ways. Arash leaves a dance club clearly incapacitated by a pill that has been slipped into his mouth. He's also in costume, trudging about in high-collared cape and cumbersome plastic fangs. Arash meets The Girl, who points out that he's actually lost in his own city as she sizes up her potential next victim. But she's disarmed by the kind and straightforward manner of the dazed young man, the culmination of which occurs when he envelopes her in his cape for a hug, a profound moment of vampire on vampire non-violence. Once again, Ana Lily Amirpour takes the most familiar of situations - the halting encounter when boy first meets girl - and manages to create something unique. So proceeds this unlikely courtship, with few words and very little physical contact.
It's the look of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night that impresses even more than the committed work of its cast. A first feature shot in black and night is hardly unprecedented, but the black and white photography here defies any expectations that might naturally enough arise from the filmmaker's inexperience, modest budget and the limits of digital film. Lyle Vincent's digital photography reveals a knowledge that's often lost with the abandonment of "real," analog film: darkness has its rich gradations, as with light. Such subtlety we often see in the nighttime shots about Bad City, whether in wide screen compositions or close-ups (even the cat, Masuka, gets the star treatment), which harken to Hollywood glamour shots of the 30's or 40's. In addition to its more oblique pleasures, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is a gorgeous film to behold.
Whether it's the peripatetic cat, the solitary young vampire or some of the strange particulars of Bad City (a dry riverbed that serves as an unquestioned human landfill), Ana Lily Amirpour establishes from the start a kind of authority in her storytelling that invites not only attention, but trust. So it is with the character of Rockabilly (Reza Sixo Safai), who exists in Bad City like a presiding spirit. We see this transgender figure early in "A Girl Walks Home," the camera sweeping by the heavily made up face on which there is a knowing, devilish smile. Almost at random, Rockabilly appears much later, in a head scarf and a kind of Western shirt, performing a mysterious dance with a mylar balloon. Does the character and the dance symbolize all that is inverse, even perverse about Bad City and the film? Perhaps just a minor addition to the atmosphere of the place? However significant or truly fleeting, Rockabilly is perhaps the most conspicuous example of a narrative so gracefully strung that its disparate elements all seem part of an enchanting whole.
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night has drawn frequent comparison to the work of Jim Jarmusch. Understandable enough perhaps, even if most such comparisons - A.O. Scott of The New York Times praising the film's "Jim Jarmusch-like cool" - come off as rather facile. Of course, there is the black and white photography, the excellent use of music obscure to a mainstream audience. Both Jim Jarmusch and Ana Lily Amirpour happen to have directed features released in 2014 which are vampire movies in almost no conventional sense. And there is that slippery matter of cool.
For all the undeniable cool that permeates many of the films of Jim Jarmusch, it is sometimes worn rather too conspicuously on the vintage sleeve. His second film, Down By Law is patched together with its cool and little else. Even the vampire Adam (Tom Hiddleston) in Jarmsuch's most recent, excellent, Only Lovers Left Alive, is almost insufferable in his world-weariness and the pretense of his discrimination - he looks upon a vintage guitar acquired for him by his man Friday and proclaims, "I shall call him William Dawes." Uh, yeah. Fortunately, Jarmusch was wise enough to balance the high style and grouchiness of Adam with the equally stylish but more optimistic Eve (Tilda Swinton). No such counterpoint is necessary in the almost serene assurance with which Ms. Amirpour has created the story and characters for A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night.
Apparently, Ana Lily Amirpour happened upon the idea for The Girl, her vampiric protagonist, by putting on a chador one day. She said it made her look like "a creature," an Iranian vampire, and "...she was probably someone you would underestimate." The chador was not something that had any daily reality in her life, but merely a film prop. As with her creation, The Girl, Amirpour
seems to have the confidence and worldview to take or leave the tokens of the various cultures of which she partakes, to operate on her own terms.
Ms. Amirpour's next film will apparently bear the title, The Bad Batch. She's described it as "...a post-apocalyptic cannibal love story set in a Texas." That sounds ridiculous, all flashy conceit and no enduring content. But so does "Iranian vampire spaghetti western." Will this young writer and director go to the genre-blending well once too often? Can she pull of something as original and satisfying as A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night? Who knows. But like the unimposing figure of The Girl who quietly owns the night of Bad City, it seems unwise to underestimate Ana Lily Amirpour at this point.