Review by Nia Edwards-Behi
I’ve been eagerly awaiting the chance to see A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night for some time. A film dubbed an Iranian-vampire-western, directed by a woman, seems quite tailor-made to my tastes. Shot in stark black and white, the film is set in the fictional Iranian town of Bad City, where its sparse population seems to consist of gangsters and the down-trodden. These inhabitants soon come to realise that there is a ghoul amongst them, and she wants company as much as she wants blood.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is something of an imperfect triumph. My immediate reaction was ‘liked it, didn’t love it’, but since seeing it the hankering to see it again has been very strong. Ultimately, I think the film falls down in terms of its pacing, and as a result it’s perhaps a bit over-long. Watching it in a festival setting, a little bit sleepy, probably didn’t help. The film is deliberately slow anyway, and that’s fine, but as a whole it has a tendency to drag. However, there is so much to be praised here, that even if my immediate response wasn’t ecstatic, I would instantly recommend the film.
As a debut feature, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night certainly shows courage. Shot in the States, yet set in Iran and made entirely in Farsi, it’s refreshing that film has received the level of support that it seems to have had. Ana Lily Amirpour’s direction and script are both slow and deliberate, and aside from pacing issues, that style hugely contributes to the languid tone of the film. It is gorgeous to look at, dominated by long shots and intimate close ups, Amirpour’s steady hand providing snapshots of life in Bad City while bringing us closer and closer to The Girl.
The film’s narrative is really quite simple, and overall the film seems much less concerned about story than it is about people and under-stated emotions. The performances are wonderful, with Sheila Vand truly captivating in the lead role. Around The Girl are characters in various shades of vulnerable – the down-trodden young man, exploited prostitute, pathetic macho gangster, aged over-bearing father – and The Girl impacts upon all of them. The Girl too is vulnerable, perhaps a little bit sad, but she holds a power that the others evidently do not. She is ruthlessly bored, stalking, threatening and killing people who variously do and do not deserve it. There is indication that the inhabitants of Bad City should know that there is a predator among them, evident from a huge ravine filled with bodies, but there doesn’t seem to be any indication that they’re out to get her unless she becomes directly involved in their lives.
All this talk of sad, bored and lonely characters might under-sell the film, however, which is surprisingly funny at times. The Girl rides a skateboard stolen from a child, and a crucial meeting between The Girl and Arash (Arash Marandi), takes place while the young man is high as a kite and dressed in a rubbish Dracula costume. The humour is masterfully restrained, such as in a remarkably awkward long shot in which a cat (quite a central role, actually) inspires fits of cathartic giggles. There’s also a remarkable sweetness to the romance which blossoms between Arash and The Girl, both seemingly offering a way out of the badness of Bad City to each other. The soundtrack plays an important role in the film as whole, but particularly in regard to this central relationship. Comparisons to Jim Jarmusch are not misplaced, but are even more pronounced after his own excellent vampire romance, Only Lovers Left Alive. Music is very much at the core of the film, even down to the look of gangster Saeed (Dominic Rains) clearly being inspired by Ninja of South African rap duo Die Antwoord (further confirmed by Amirpour wearing a t-shirt bearing Ninja’s face to the Sitges screening).
While A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night might not be a complete success, there is so much talent evident within it. This is genre-bending, sensitive filmmaking, and it succeeds in being serious without ever taking itself too seriously. I am very excited to see where Amirpour goes next.