Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) is the most exciting debut feature film of the decade because it showcases the artist’s pure, uninhibited vision. At a time when most aspiring filmmakers play it safe in an attempt to garner mainstream exposure and secure financing for the highly coveted second feature, Amirpour has followed the path of her iconoclastic heroes David Lynch, Quentin Tarantino, and Jim Jarmusch to announce her defiant presence. She made the film she dreamed of without worrying about how it would be distributed, who would want to watch it, or if it would earn her a place in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
The film has been described as the first Iranian Vampire Western. Set in Bad City, a fictional ghost town in Iran, the film stars Sheila Vand as a vampire known as The Girl who lurks in the shadows of the night and stalks the townspeople. The characters speak Farsi, but the film is an American production, and Amirpour is more interested in expressing her cinephilia than any sociopolitical agenda about the Iranian government. Both she and Vand, a second-generation Iranian-American, tell a story about characters that happen to be Iranian as opposed to one about what it means to be Iranian. The film’s association with the art-house crowd shouldn’t scare anyone away. It is pleasurable and entertaining, unlike the strictly intellectual exercises like Winter Sleep (2014) that are interesting to talk about over dinner but punishing to sit through in a theater.
At the core, the film is a love story between The Girl and Arash (Arash Marandi), a drug dealer she meets one night on the deserted streets of Bad City. Arash is intoxicated, and The Girl offers him a place of refuge in her home. The tension is palpable. Is Arash safe, or will The Girl lure him to his death? What follows is a captivating wordless scene set to “Death” by White Lies, in which they fall in love by sharing the same space.
Like Tarantino, Lynch, and Jarmusch, Amirpour is just as interested in the film’s iconography as its characters. Shot in beautiful black and white with the help of cinematographer Lyle Vincent, the expressionist images recall Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977). Bad City is a singular setting that is timeless and distinctly cinematic, and it pays homage to the insular worlds of Tarantino and Jarmusch, in which characters live and breathe by rules according to the artist.
Throughout the film, we glimpse the many other artists that have inspired Amirpour. The soundtrack pays homage to Ennio Morricone’s work for Sergio Leone, and posters on The Girl’s bedroom wall resemble the faces of Madonna, Michael Jackson, and the Bee Gees, with a strange twist. In an interview with VICE on one of the bonus features, Amirpour reveals that she didn’t bother to ask permission for the real posters, and instead made her own versions. The Madonna poster, for instance, is actually author Margaret Atwood, and the other posters similarly feature Amirpour’s friends doing their best impressions of iconic celebrities. It is this amateur appropriation that gives the film its postmodern punk sensibility, and establishes Amirpour as a filmmaker interested in intertextuality.
Knowledge of popular culture certainly makes the viewing experience more exciting, but it is not required to enjoy A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. At the end of the day, the film is about the characters, and no amount of hip stylistic flourishes can compensate for the essentials. The performances by Vand and Marandi are incredibly effective, and Amirpour creates genuine tension and suspense as we wonder how their relationship will progress. The vampire elements don’t come across as gimmicky, as they are used to explore loneliness and alienation, as well as what it means to be a woman in a lawless society overrun with drug dealers, pimps, and prostitutes.
Although the film is available on Netflix streaming, the Blu-ray is worth the purchase. In addition to the beautiful cover art, there is a must-have booklet that features an insightful essay by Eric Kohn, as well as a graphic novel of the film, written by Amirpour and illustrated by Michael DeWeese. The bonus features include a number of deleted scenes, including the full hilarious and absurd infomercial seen in the beginning of the film in which a man encourages lonely older women to “make a fruit roll up” with their plums, surely a commentary on gender politics. There are also two interviews, one between Roger Corman and Amirpour, and the other between VICE and Amirpour and Vand. Both interviews provide information about the filmmaking process and the artistic intentions of the creators.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night isn’t as great as it could be. Some shots are held for a bit longer than necessary, and at times the film’s hipsterdom can be obnoxious. Nevertheless, it’s worth celebrating Amirpour’s glorious arrival, as well as Vand’s captivating screen presence. Both of them have exciting futures ahead of them in cinema, and they have collaborated to make one of the most fascinating debut films in recent memory.