The ravishing look of writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour’s feature debut is so enveloping that it doesn’t much matter that not a lot happens within the frame. Draped in dreamy black-and-white and scored with proto-Morricone instrumentals and evocative goth-rock, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night proudly stakes its claim as an aspiring cult classic. Expect anything more from this exercise in luxurious cool and you’ll feel shortchanged. Go in with a spirit of midnight-movie playfulness, and you’ll have plenty to savor.
Advertising itself as “the first Iranian Vampire Western,” A Girl Walks transcends just about every word in that description, and yet it has the defiant one-dimensionality of a lurid graphic novel. Its moody atmosphere is all of a piece, cutting off our connection to characters or any sense of deeper thematic or emotional terrain. Amirpour has crafted a tone poem to alienation and first love that’s incredibly sensual and eerie. As a movie, it has major shortcomings. As a directing sample, it’s a knockout.
The film stars Sheila Vand (Argo) as the titular girl. She lives in Bad City, a desert community littered with slowly churning oil derricks and an unsettling open pit where dead bodies are dumped. This unnamed character walks the city streets at night decked out in a chador, which makes her look like a superhero. More accurately, she’s a vampire, feasting indiscriminately on men deserving of the grisly fate. (Pimps and other baddies seem to be favored targets.)
The other important character is Arash (Arash Marandi), a strikingly handsome young man who takes a liking to this mysterious woman, not knowing her true identity. (Ironically, they meet at a costume party where he’s dressed up as Dracula.) A Girl Walks becomes a tentative love story, and Amirpour presents this mismatched couple with a melodramatic Romeo-and-Juliet flair that suggests we shouldn’t get too invested in their romantic travails. Like the actors who play the lovers, this movie is endlessly gorgeous without worrying about revealing many layers.
Shot in Southern California, A Girl Walks is a triumph of high-contrast lighting, the dark shadows coexisting with the flickering streetlights. (The whole movie exists in the same arresting permanent-midnight environment of Touch of Evil, where empty desert threatens to consume the few signs of civilization.) Such a heightened visual palette risks becoming monotonous, but Amirpour and cinematographer Lyle Vincent keep delighting the eye, finding endless ways to surprise us with the ghostly appearance of Vand in the background. (With her pale face, heavily-mascaraed eyes and dark cloak, she’s the most bewitching vision of death you’ve seen on a screen in a while.) Not quite a horror movie, A Girl Walks has its share of spilled blood, but Amirpour prefers the creepy-crawly to the crudity of gore. Like Jim Jarmusch, she enjoys playing around with genres from an ironic distance, letting her noir-ish tone set the terms for everything else that goes into the film.
There are attempts at storytelling, but be warned that they fall short. Arash’s father (Marshall Manesh) is a drug addict with heavy debts that must be settled by the son. A young boy (Milad Eghbali) and an ethereal prostitute (Mozhan Marnó) cross the vampire’s path. But the dribs and drabs of plot don’t linger in the mind. Instead, you recall a glorious slow-motion dance scene that begins the seduction between Arash and the vampire. Amirpour, who also paints, sculpts and performs in a band, has a real knack for the finely tuned marriage of sound and picture, drafting scenes and moments that stun the senses. If they don’t always mesh together into a compelling whole, they suggest a filmmaker who knows how to let her strengths compensate for her shortcomings. Think what might happen if the shortcomings get addressed.
Director: Ana Lily Amirpour
Writer: Ana Lily Amirpour
Starring: Sheila Vand, Arash Marandi, Marshall Manesh, Mozhan Marnó, Dominic Rains, Milad Eghbali
Release Date: Nov. 21, 2014
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.