There’s an interesting section in Thomas C. Foster’s highly-recommended book How To Read Literature Like a Professor where he describes the many metaphors that vampires typically represent. “[Vampirism] is also about things other than literal vampirism: selfishness, exploitation, a refusal to respect the autonomy of other people, just for starters.” He goes on to explain that vampirism is, at its core, a metaphor for:
“…exploitation in its many forms. Using other people to get what we want. Denying someone else’s right to live in the face of our overwhelming demands. … That’s pretty much what the vampire does, after all. He wakes up in the morning… and says something like, ‘In order to remain undead, I must steal the life force of someone whose fate matters less to me than my own.’”
It’s from this Literature 101 school of thought that Ana Lily Amirpour’s feature film debut A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night comes to us. Content to let the literal vampirism exist silently in the background radiation, the film juxtaposes this against other examinations of societal drains, including drug dealers, pimps, and oil drilling, and it’s perfectly okay with letting you know that’s the point it wants to make.
About as concerned with plot as it is subtlety, Girl Walks Home features Sheila Vand as an unnamed vampire (hereafter referred to as “Sheila”) who stalks the Iranian desert town of Bad City, preying on homeless people and the aforementioned drug dealers/pimps, represented here by Saeed (Dominic Rains). Sheila eventually encounters Arash (Arash Marandi), a poor gardener attempting to break his father (Marshall Manesh) of his crippling heroin addiction despite the fact that Arash eventually winds up selling drugs himself. When the two meet, Sheila instantly… likes him, I guess? This is basically where the film’s bare-bones plot falls apart. There’s absolutely no reason for Sheila not to consume Arash, there’s nothing that makes him different from her other victims, there’s not even much of a romance between them, but for whatever reason, Sheila lets him live and they continue to see each other in an undefined relationship. Meanwhile, multiple shots of oil-drilling rigs are interspersed throughout.
Like I said, Girl Walks Home doesn’t particularly care about plot, in fact the closest thing it has to an actual main conflict happens in the last 20 minutes. Instead, the film is more concerned with creating atmosphere and mood, and paying homages to its many, many influences. In this regard it succeeds greatly, owing mostly to Amirpour and DP Lyle Vincent’s precisely calculated and creative use of lighting, angles, and blocking. The basic visual premise of “a chador (not a burqa) at night looks like a vampire’s cape” is one which could easily have been played out very fast, but Armirpour keeps finding new ways to make it work, and turns Sheila into consistently imposing and intriguing figure. After turning a suburb of Palo Alto into a recreation of a suburb of Tehran, Armirpour is more than content to wander through the world she’s created in Bad City. It’s a world where spaghetti-western-style scores seem perfectly in place for shots of a man walking around the suburbs, where fluorescent light buzz and lampposts reenact the flickering light of silent film projections, and where the bad guy can have a massive tattoo on his throat simply reading “SEX”, and it somehow works. More than anything, Girl Walks Home feels like a Jim Jarmusch film, possibly even more so than Jarmusch’s actual vampire film.
Under Armipour’s direction, Sheila Vand is the perfect modern representation of classic vampire tropes, while simultaneously being an inversion of them. In this case, it’s the young virginal girl who is the predator, and she even drains the life of older men who believe they are in charge of the situation. Blurring the lines of being sexually appealing and intimidating, Vand plays her character as deceptively vulnerable in public, but appropriately brooding when alone in her apartment, though the organ music is replaced by post-punk synth-pop. I also want to make note of how Dominic Rains acts like Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Ali G” character played completely straight, and it’s so over the top that it somehow comes back around to working. One of the best scenes in the film comes from his attempted seduction of Sheila in his delightfully tacky apartment, only to have her roll her eyes silently as she plays with her food. Most of Sheila’s scenes are nearly entirely silent, and her body mostly obscured by the chador, so it really falls on Vand’s face to get across thoughts like “I can’t believe I have to deal with this shit.”
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night brands itself as “The first Iranian Vampire Western,” but beyond that gimmicky tagline, there really is a clear sense of creativity and originality here. While the film has flaws in the pacing department, it’s worth seeing because of the sensation you get while watching that you’re witnessing something new, something people will be referencing for some time. Imagine watching Mean Streets in 1973 and thinking, “This Scorcese kid is pretty good.” That’s what Amirpour’s debut feels like, and it’s crucial that people see this film so that this career’s opening act is allowed the opportunity to flourish into a full success story.
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