A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) is a highly stylized love story directed by Ana Lily Amirpour. This is her debut as a feature-length director, but her lack of experience rarely shows through the film’s sleek black and white veneer. The fact that this is a vampire movie will inevitably confuse some audience members, as it harkens back to gothic romance more than horror (as do many vampire stories). If you’re looking for big scares, look elsewhere.
The story follows Arash, a young Iranian man working hard to improve his lot in life. He lives with his drug addicted father and a cat (that he “adopts” in the opening scene). He’s not the most virtuous of folks, but in Bad City nobody seems to be. The setting of Bad City provides visual cues about what life must be like for Arash and its other denizens. There’s a conspicuous ditch filled with corpses; and a backdrop of oil rigs mechanically grinding on- unflinching vampires sucking the wealth out of the land itself, leaving the corpse of Bad City to fester.
Unfortunately for Arash, his father’s drug addiction is catching up with them both. A local drug dealer and pimp, Saeed, takes Arash’s prized possession, his slick car, in order to pay back the debt his father has accrued. This enrages Arash, but he only ends up hurting himself by bashing his fist against a wall in frustration.
Saeed’s resume wouldn’t just read: pimp and drug dealer. He’s also a genuinely despicable human being. It’s not enough for Saeed to collect from his exploited employees and clients, we also see him degrade and humiliate one prostitute, Atti. He calls her old and asks about her wanting children (a knife that, undoubtedly, cuts deep). In what seems like a defense mechanism, she sucks his finger and then begins to perform oral sex on him. The act is interrupted by someone watching them; someone that seems to evaporate into the night. Saeed is unnerved, and takes his frustration out on Atti by taking her entire earnings for the night, and physically removing her from the car.
Arash is desperate to get the car back. He had worked so hard for it (“2,191 days,” by his exact count). While gardening for a client, he is called on by Shaydah (the “Princess” of the estate). Her television has lost its signal and she assumes he can fix it. In her bedroom, Arash sees that she has left a pair of expensive earrings lying out in the open. He gets Shaydah to leave the room by exploiting custom- it’s imprudent for them to be together in her bedroom. He hadn’t planned the crime, just rolling with the punches that Bad City threw his way. He takes the earrings to buy his car back from Saeed.
In the meantime, Saeed has met the phantom Girl that was stalking around the car. The Girl follows Saeed back to his house, which is lavishly decorated. After ignoring his guest while tending to himself- as if he’ll get around to her when he’s good and ready- he eventually offers the Girl some cocaine. She lures him in and parallels the action we’ve seen with Atti; but she sucks his finger as a pretense to something other than oral sex. The Girl is a vampire and she bares her fangs. Saeed is too accustomed to having power over women though, and he ignores the fangs at his own peril.
Arash arrives just after the vampire’s attack, and sees the Girl leaving Saeed’s place. Inside he finds the corpse and absconds with the pimp’s money, drugs, and the keys to his beloved car. Again, another crime of opportunity. This is an important survival strategy in Bad City, not a character flaw. After all, Arash isn’t preying on the oppressed or the down-trodden, he is preying on the opulence of Bad City’s oppressors. Oppressors who, importantly, don’t even miss what he has taken.
For all of the obvious cues, this film lets the images and actions inform us instead of telling us what’s-what through exposition. We are free to make associations from what we know, or don’t, of Iranian culture (side note: the film is set in Iran, but it was filmed in California). We see the vampire Girl as a hero, cloaked in a chador and striking back against the oppressive patriarchy that dominates life in Bad City. Some people are going to inevitably see this as all too obvious, too political, too feminist, but they are going to be missing the plot (figuratively and literally).
They might even be too threatened by what this Girl represents to truly reflect upon the importance of it all. This character, this entire film, is punk as fuck. It is breaking taboos in meaningful ways. It is smashing concepts of power and turning them on their heads. It is striking fear into the heart of the powerful, of the exploitive. It pulls this off in a way that can only be described as cool. SO FUCKING COOL!!!
There is a powerful scene involving the Girl and a Street Urchin. The child is important to the story in a few key ways, but here he is another potential victim. The Girl stalks him down, and confronts him. This scene speaks directly to the males in the audience; directly to us at our most vulnerable. The Girl asks the young boy, “Are you a good boy?” She then proceeds, “I can take your eyes out of your skull and give them to dogs to eat.” But she isn’t just terrorizing the boy, she is earnestly trying to impress upon him a virtue. She adds, “Till the end of your life, I’ll be watching you. Understand?” As if she were girding the young boy’s conscience.
When Arash and the Girl finally meet, we see Arash in a state where he is every bit as vulnerable as the Street Urchin. He’s just come from a club, dressed as Dracula of all things. He is on drugs- something he wasn’t interested in doing, but did to impress or appease Shaydah- and he is lost. He needs the Girl’s help. Yes, a man asks a woman for directions, and he thinks nothing of it. He needs her. And she, it seems, needs him too. They go back to her place, and the Girl puts on some music.
The soundtrack of this film is truly amazing. It lends great force to the scenes. There is one sequence that immediately calls to mind Ennio Morricone and his work for Sergio Leone. But, even the pop tunes propel scenes to new heights of emotion and meaning. In many cases, providing a voice to unspoken elements.
When the Girl puts on music for Arash (see the scene here), we begin to truly see the efficacy of Ana Lily Amirpour’s deft hand as a director. Everything comes together, the set decoration, the acting, the framing, and, of course, the music. In one shot, we see the Girl facing the extreme edge of the frame, with ample negative space behind her. This empty space gains more and more gravity. Arash finally, slowly, like a stalking Nosferatu, fills the space. He crosses to the Girl, there’s tension as Arash’s neck is bared to the Girl, and then they embrace.
Arash and the Girl both face archetypes of the masculine and feminine in Bad City. Arash views his Father breaking down and can no longer tolerate that his Father has abandoned him for drugs. He gives the junkie an impromptu intervention. The Father chooses drugs over his son. Arash sends his Father away with some of the money and drugs stolen from Saeed, as well as the cat. Meanwhile, the Girl watches Atti vandalize what she thinks is Saeed’s car. She follows her home and discusses Atti’s life and choices. The Girl seems to understand Atti, and she sympathizes with her.
The lovers meet near a power plant. Arash offers the Girl a hamburger to eat, and this highlights a serious problem. The Girl is not human, she doesn’t feed on hamburgers she feeds on people. Arash attempts to get to know her better, by asking about what the last song she listened to was. She replies with a song that has lyrics like “I long to see the sunshine in your hair.”
Arash then presents the earrings he had stolen, using the opportunity to show he knows something about her- the Girl’s ears are not pierced. So they pierce her ears, a ritual often associated with birth or naming ceremonies. She confesses that she has done bad things, but Arash doesn’t think that changes anything. Something that will be put to the test later in the film.
Arash’s Father, freshly kicked out of his home, goes to Atti. He forces her to use drugs with him. He has taken the cat with him from home, and it seems almost like the Girl has watched the scene unfold through its eyes. She springs into action and takes Arash’s Father as her next victim. Atti helps her drag the body into the street.
Arash finds his Father’s corpse, and he decides to leave it all behind. He goes to find the Girl to make their escape from Bad City. She is reluctant, but this is their chance for life, for love, for something better. She begins to pack, and the cat emerges. Arash seems to know what this means, after all he saw what the Girl did to Saeed.
It pulls at his conscience, but they leave together. Driving out of Bad City, Arash has to pull over in order to make a final decision. He knows the Girl has killed his Father, but maybe it doesn’t change anything between them. Indeed, love carries the day (or, night as it were).
This is a very difficult film for me to review because it is one of my favorites. It speaks directly to the romantic in me, while forcing me to confront aspects of myself. It asks me to examine my relationships with the women in my life, and those I meet in passing. There are clear nods towards some of my favorite directors (e.g. Sergio Leone and Federico Fellini). It has an amazing soundtrack that motivates emotion. It relies on action to move the story along. The dialogue avoids exposition and achieves moments of poetic grace. The film is both clever and bold.
It offers a lot to talk about. Issues that we need to address. Some will take away something political. Others will want to bring this up in a gender studies course. Some might even dwell on how a vampire movie spends such little time focusing on these supernatural creatures. The real take away- the one with the potential to speak to each of us on a human level -involves the struggle of rising above what we are offered in life, and choosing to find love in a cruel world.
The film begs us to try and understand its characters. Each one is interesting, if enigmatic. Flawed, but recognizable. With such cleverly written characters, we can begin to analyze ourselves. Where would we fit in? Who would we be in Bad City? How, and with whom would we escape?
A horror film that can cause you to reflect on life, love, and identity has truly surpassed the limits of the genre.
This beautiful film walks home with a 9 out of 10