A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, director Ana Lily Amirpour’s first feature, is not the film the title may at first suggest. All notions of vulnerability and helplessness that come to mind with this loaded title are a mere red herring, the first of many ways in which Amirpour undermines the audience’s preconceived ideas about what it takes to be a predator, and who is fit to be prey.
The unnamed woman at the heart of this film, played by Sheila Vand and known on screen only as “The Girl”, gives an enigmatic and electric performance as the voracious vampire who preys on the corrupt, lawless men of the fictional Bad City. The Girl is a constant shape shifting presence on screen who is never absolutely anything – we are introduced to her as an isolated young girl, listening to vinyl and dancing alone in her bedroom, yet our next encounters with her see her stalking prey and following her victims home.
Even her appearance goes against any strict definitions, cloaked in a hijab clashing with Breton stripes and trainers, all black kohl eyes and a dark red mouth – The Girl appears all at once a woman, a child, and something completely inhuman. The shape shifting quality of this character refuses to be categorized or molded into a stereotype or trope, which in turn creates a character that that feels completely original and engaging to watch as The Girl switches from alienated youth to predatory monster in the blink of an eye.
What is most striking about The Girl, however, is her complete refusal to apologise for who she is and what she does, a quality that is not often emphasised in female characters on screen. There is no denial or excuses to be made for her violent brand of justice, and her confession to potential love interest Arash that “I’m bad, I’ve done bad things” is the closest we get to an explanation for her actions. Neither the audience nor Arash get to truly understand how The Girl came to be this way, nor at any point does The Girl care enough to tell you. The Girl is accountable to no one; and even at the finale both the audience and Arash are left to wonder about The Girl’s true motives and feelings.
Genre wise, Iranian Vampire Western is just one of many ways to describe this film (though it is possibly my favourite). The film blends horror, romance and violence in a way that defies strict categorisation, and like The Girl herself, is never absolute – moments of real terror and suspense are tempered with endearing moments of connection between The Girl and Arash, leaving the audience with something that feels entirely unique. That being said, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is undeniably a film with a wide-ranging pack of influences guiding it, with a heady combination of pulp, gothic and pop culture references running throughout.
In particular, glimpses of Lynchian neo-noir flicker throughout the film, with cryptic conversations and disconnected sequences comparable to some of Lynch’s stranger moments on film – the crossdresser dancing with a singular black balloon is a particularly poetic moment for the film that takes the audience almost completely out of the narrative, one that would feel right at home in Twin Peaks or Blue Velvet.
By setting this film in the fictional Iranian Bad City, Amirpour gives herself free rein to create a completely imagined landscape that seems barren, deserted and strange, despite being filmed in Bakersfield, California. This is a no man’s land of deserted streets, a netherworld where the reality of vampires fits easily into the dark and depressing underworld in which the characters reside. The mood itself often dictates the tone of a scene, with long, dramatic shots of the dark deserted streets of Bad City becoming (excuse the enormous cliché) almost a character in itself, reflecting the blank loneliness of the city’s residents. Though, whilst the setting is imagined and the themes supernatural, the film still manages to deal with real human issues – prostitution, drug dealing, addiction and poverty are all presented starkly in this film as part of the backdrop for The Girl’s predatory instincts as she attacks drug dealers and men that abuse women. Bad City may be fictional and its methods of justice supernatural, but the issues the film raises manage to remain entirely human.
The characters, genre and plot of A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night can be viewed as simply or with as much complexity as you like. With The Girl’s refusal to be defined by her gender and the role reversal of the marginalised prey and the dominant predator, it is easy to see why many critics have hailed this film as a brilliantly feminist work; and that is certainly what I took away from the film. However, this work can be politicized and interpreted in an abundance of ways, with Amirpour herself refusing to label the film as anything at all. The film allows the audience to make its own judgments and interpretations on everything from the characters to the setting, leaving the audience with far more questions than answers by the finale. This is a bold and innovative way to create a film, with a suspended sense of realism that allows for almost anything to occur. Well worth watching.