Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is an extremely peculiar film, at once accessible and indecipherable. It’s a film of strange contradictions.
It’s an Iranian film, and yet it’s not really an Iranian film. It’s in the Persian language, populated by actors of Iranian descent and set in a town that seems Iranian but really just looks like a borderland from another world, albeit a very American one. (It was shot in southern California.)
It’s a horror movie, but its languid pace and protracted, wordless scenes are more artsy-statement and sometimes music video-like than genre-defining. And don’t even try to find any one definitive meaning in it.
It’s also definitely unique as a whole, a film with a vibe that’s one-part dark horror, one-part mysterious noir and one-part dystopian fable. But it’s also wholly unoriginal, drawing influences from everything and everyone, from David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch to dusty westerns and early Marlon Brando movies. (I see more Brando here than James Dean.) If its vibe is closest to anything, it’s Jarmusch’s Dead Man, another film that takes place in a town at the edge of hell.
A Girl Walks Home‘s town is called Bad City (serious!), an industrial wasteland devoid of law enforcement and with a big trench for the disposal of bodies with no questions asked. The nights are dark and desolate, the buildings and houses sparsely lived in, and the streets empty and soulless. But then there are night parties full of people popping pills, dancing shoulder-to-shoulder, a kind of contradiction that has a jarring effect and a dislocation of thought.
All this, and strange film speeds and the atmospheric black-and-white photography, lend to a dreamy, otherworldly effect which enhances the experience of a world that seems to be very slowly unravelling, disintegrating body and soul.
If anything, I would call A Girl Walks Home a kind of companion piece to Spring, in that both films feature a guy falling in love with a monster. But that’s as far as the similarities go. They’re of different concerns, although I’m not quite sure what the former’s concern is.
The film is made up of the stories of several characters. The more predominant one is of a young man, Arash, who lives with his junkie father whose habit has left him heavy in debt to a drug dealer.
The girl in the title (played by Sheila Vand, so striking you can’t take your eyes off her) is almost secondary to that, and is the element that is difficult to know, a wraith-like figure flitting in and out of space, a vampire that attacks the bad guys and helps other women, a kind of man-hating extreme-feminist vigilante. She even scares a little boy and steals his skateboard.
One night after a costume party where someone dares him to take a pill, Arash staggers home in a drugged stupor, dressed as Dracula. The girl, looking ghostly in a chador, stumbles upon him in the street and, we assume, is considering whether to kill him, when she is somewhat taken by his seemingly silly naivete. What follows is probably the funniest scene of the entire film – a fake vampire meeting a real vampire who later pushes him home on her skateboard. It’s also the best scene in the film that comes exactly at the midpoint.
The other stories involve Arashi’s father and a prostitute, but they are not subplots, because the film doesn’t even have a proper plot to speak of. It just moves from one situation to another with a rare fluidity.
When the girl first appears in her long, black traditional garment, on the shadowed street tailing the drug dealer, you’d mistake her for a symbol of conservatism as a kind of vampirism. The film’s artsy allusions misdirect you into thinking it’s a film that reaches for above and beyond mere genre conventions. But scenes of the vampire’s attacks are played very conventionally.
When she steals a skateboard and skates through the quiet night with her chador billowing behind her, she becomes quite something else, a kind of freedom from conventions. Then you’re thrown off again.
It’s difficult to contextualise this film, because of its unplaceable setting and time (the girl’s home is filled with 80s memorabilia and music). You can read a million political and social allegories into it, but at its most basic level, this is a story about male-female dynamics, the way men (mis)treat women. When we first enter Arash’s home, a man on the TV warns women that one day their husbands may leave them for a younger woman, and that basically men are unreliable bastards.
The men in the film may be bastards, but the women are hypnotic, powerful in their very presence. They are gorgeous, seductive, and mostly dangerous.
But the characterisations are pretty thin, and it’s futile to try and draw anymore from the film, when all we are ever privy to are hints such as how Arash’s father may have had a history with the prostitute that may or may not have been the cause of the absence of a matriarch in their home.
What we do have is a film that is so engaging with its aesthetics, we simply can’t look away. The beautiful contrast in the photography, the lingering shots of the characters, are aching poetry of time coagulated.
A Girl Walks Home may be a film patching together so many nods to other films, but its style is the mastery of its director. But whether it’s more style than substance or otherwise, depends on how much you can tolerate its way of constructing the visual framework of a film from influences and homages. Like Tarantino, Amirpour doesn’t shy away from using her influences openly. But unlike Tarantino who ploughs those influences to find something yet unsaid, she uses those influences to create her own Frankenstein monster with a soul all its own.