It’s rather hard to pinpoint what exactly “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” is (besides a film with a fairly lengthy title to type out). Is it a horror film, or a young-adult drama? Is it influenced more by Hollywood film noir of the 1940s, or the second Iranian New Wave? Only one thing is for sure: there’s no other film like it.
The film is set in the fictional Iranian town of Bad City, a run-down village surrounded by a dried-up, oil-rigged desert. Most of its citizens have fallen on hard times, barely making ends meet and turning to drugs, prostitution, and other forms of crime as a result. Arash (Arash Marandi), a young man with a 1950s greaser-like get-up, works to pay off his junkie father’s (Marshall Manesh) debt to the local drug dealer/pimp (Dominic Rains), watching the few luxuries he’s worked to afford get swept away. Fed up with his father’s inability to quit his habit and the continuous abuse he receives from the dealer, Arash goes to confront him about his father’s debt only to find him brutally murdered in his apartment. Seizing the opportunity, Arash steals the dealer’s stash and takes the role of the community’s drug dealer, but still feels unfulfilled even with his new lucrative source of income.
Parallel to Arash’s story is that of the mysterious woman known only as “The Girl” (Sheila Vand). With her chador billowing behind her she floats through the town in the dead of night, keeping tabs on all of its night crawling inhabitants. Occasionally she entertains the advances from a few male strangers, but not for long as they serve her only one purpose: blood-drenched sustenance. Because she just so happens to be, y’know, a vampire.
When Arash and “The Girl” cross paths, they strike up a relationship that would be best described as tolerable. Arash finds it strange that “The Girl” is so cool in her demeanor but is drawn to her air of mystery, whereas “The Girl” is glad that Arash isn’t a forceful and self-centered character and happens to be more childishly naïve than anything else. (Maybe she was also attracted to his Dracula Halloween costume, too…) Just as their relationship buds Arash’s home life starts to spiral out of control, and fearing for his life he starts to question if staying in Bad City–or even with “The Girl”–is ultimately worth it.
The film is the first feature from director Ana Lily Amirpour, who developed it from a previous short of the same name. Like many debut features the focus on individual style is prevalent here, and because of that it feels a bit like the ultimate student film. To be clear: that’s not meant as an insult, but more so just as an observation of someone who can’t wait to share everything they love with the world. The film’s elements feel like the blended concoction of all of Amirpour’s own interests, and they definitely span the gamut. As mentioned before, the film is not just a blend of a couple of genres and movements but a whole slew of them: there’s elements from atmospheric horror, romantic dramas, film noir, Iranian New Wave, westerns, and crime thrillers. Other aspects of the film are just as diverse: the costume design bounces back and forth from 1950s dress wear to the casualness of millennial teenagers; the soundtrack is dashed with 1980s alt-pop; even the setting looks like an unclassifiable amalgamation of Iranian cities with American suburbia. There are so many awesome sources of inspiration here, and that might be the film’s greatest hurdle. There’s so much to focus on and take in that it’s hard to grab on to them all at once and still appreciate their individual eccentricities. But in a way, Amirpour could be pioneering a sort of mash-up style of film making where that stylistic bombardment is simply part of the experience, and in the long run that prospective assumption honestly seems more intriguing than off-putting.
In contrast to its tonal saturation, Amirpour sneaks in scenes that are surprisingly minimalistic. Arash and “The Girl’s” first rendezvous consists of them very slowly approaching each other while a disco ball spins and 80s pop plays, only to end not with sex but with an affectionate embrace. Their second, similarly, involves staggered one-liners as they wrestle their desires with their responsibilities while sharing earrings and hamburgers. And even though moments like these are neither dialogue-heavy nor action-packed, they’re unbelievably enthralling nonetheless.
What’s also important about AGWHAAN is that it subverts the woman-as-vulnerable/woman-in-trouble trope, taking a device that’s become an unfortunate staple in mainstream film making and turning it on its head. “The Girl” is not the character who is fearful but the one to be feared; she stalks the city’s low-life, abusive men in order to give them their due justice, while warning others to “be a good boy” or, y’know…”or else”.
So while Amirpour’s debut effort is not without its setbacks, it’s a unique new voice that deserves to be heard. More of a love-note to both genre and culture rather than a firm addition to one or the other, AGWHAAN is one of the most creative works you’ll see all year that, unlike “The Girl’s” bite, won’t leave you feeling drained.