Masterful film-makers like Tarantino, David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch, Sergio Leone etc, often amalgamate the familiar generic elements to offer us a wholly original work. Their works –from plot structure to character sketch - are soaked with cultural and allegorical references. American film-maker (of Iranian origin) Ana Lily Amirpour’s debut feature “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” (2014) is a mash-up of all the well known vampire iconography, but the mythical netherworld created by the director and her striking compositions makes it a remarkable debut. The movie’s title is accompanied with a self-described tag-line “First Iranian Vampire Western” and that pretty much sums up the movie’s entire plot. For entertainment seekers, this film might resemble a toothless bloodsucker, since there are no edge-of-the-seat set-pieces or cutesy romance. However, movie lovers would be relished by the inventive monochromatic shots and the playful connections the director draws between different genres.
It is obvious that “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” doesn’t possess the perfect cohesive vision (of aforementioned masters), but this is just her first full-length movie. Director Amirpour penchant for macabre stories is said to have started even at the age of 12 as she shot a slasher short film with her dad’s camera. In this film, she has created a ghastly fictional city named ‘Bad City’, where every farsi-speaking lowlifes and fiends roam the streets. The city’s neighborhood has small ravines filled with dead bodies which don’t raise anybody’s curiosity. The bleak oil rigs & industrial smoke makes us think that Harry Spencer of “Eraserhead” might be living in this city. Arash (Arash Marandi), our protagonist works menial jobs (as gardener, handyman) and takes care of his junkie father, Hossein (Marshall Manesh).
He is also the romantic type, the one with a swept back hair, wearing skin-tight T-shirts and drives a muscle car. Arash’s father owes lot of money (for the drugs) to the city’s gangster/drug-dealer/pimp (Dominic Rains), who has the word ‘sex’ tattooed on his neck. He takes away Arash’s beloved car, for which Arash worked 2,191 days. Atti (Mozhan Marno) is an aging prostitute, who works for the all-around bad guy, and she is constantly harassed by him. However, the real menace in the city is an unnamed hijab-wearing vampire (Sheila Vand). She skateboards through the desolate city, satiating her hunger, deciding who gets to live or die. She lives in a basement apartment, where the walls are decorated with wall-papers of pop stars like Michael Jackson and Madonna. One day, she witnesses the harassment of Atti and later meets up with the bad guy. Soon, he lies on the carpet with a blood-drained face. The circumstances also bring together ‘the girl’ and Arash, who is coming from a costume party, cloaked in the attire of Dracula.
There’s nothing new here in the film that we haven’t seen before, and the themes diffused within the plot structure aren’t deep or provocative, but this film is solely watchable for each of its precise compositions (shot in Bakersfield, Southern California). The static shots of stark landscape and the gyrating close-ups (with infectious background score) give a charged & intimate energy to the deliberate slow pace. If each of the images are ponderous and shrouded in oblique mystery, the performers too more layers to Amirpour’s sparse story. The asserting as well as imploring looks from the eyes of Sheila Vand conveys the enigma, which a detailed character exposition wouldn’t have done.
The basic human boy-vampire girl romance and its oft-kilter nature might immediately make us draw comparisons with Swedish romantic horror “Let the Right One In”. Although both the movies pose similar kind of question in the end, “The Girl…” is more or less a companion piece to Jim Jarmusch’s “Only Lovers Left Alive” than the Swedish horror. The deadpan hippiness of ‘the girl’ and her heartfelt chats calls to mind the early Jarmusch works like “Stranger than Paradise”. The sparse dialogues and the dark, surrealistic nature of the surroundings also invite us to interpret the film as an allegory for something political. Are the motionless shots of oil derricks conveying some insidious design of geopolitics? Or is it showing how humans are draining the blood of the lands? Is ‘the girl’, the feminists’ answer to morality police of male populace?
Director Amirpour, however, wasn’t keen on affirming at least one of the allegorical interpretation. As she has said in an interview that ‘just because she is a woman and her parents were once Iranians, it doesn’t mean everything has to be about feminism and middle-east politics’. Amirpour’s ‘girl’ is an enigma because we don’t clearly know what drives her: hunger or justice. In one moment, she torments a boy to be good in that amoral town, but in another occasion she feeds on a homeless guy, motivated by ravenous desire. The girl’s hunger showcases or symbolizes that she is also at the mercy of forces far beyond her control, just like the way we humans are controlled by societal norms. For me, the most fascinating part was the decisive last moment, when Arash ponders on what to do after discovering the sinister secrets of ‘the girl’. Without getting cutesy, the puzzling ending hopefully states that love can change both or at least one of them.
“A Girl Walk Home Alone at Night” (100 minutes) may not whet the appetite of main-stream movie spectators, but open-minded movie enthusiast would definitely fall in love with its mesmerizing and surrealistic visuals (and may also overlook its very thin plot).