Coming into Sundance, Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night was one of my hottest tickets. I love seeing premieres from established auteurs as much as the next cinephile but I also long to hear those new voices singing songs I haven’t heard before. Cinema’s first Iranian vampire western? Sign me up.
My high expectations for something unique and remarkable may have damaged my overall appreciation of Amirpour’s film. It’s a work that promises remarkable things from its talented creator as it boasts an incredible eye for composition and visual storytelling but I found it too narratively and thematically thin to resonate. The fact is that Amirpour has an artist’s eye and that means she’s always going to craft interesting work; I just hope future projects don’t feel quite as shallow as this one.
The title of this black-and-white mood piece is kind of a bait-and-switch. The “girl” (Sheila Vand) is in no danger as she walks home alone at night. She’s the dangerous one. In fact, she’s a vampire. She roams the streets at night, devouring the evil men who get in her way. She does seem to have a moral code, biting off the finger of the local crime lord who deserves punishment but letting a boy live with the promise that he better stay on the good side of society. She’ll be watching.
Meanwhile, a Persian James Dean named Arash (Arash Marandi) is struggling to stay afloat. The aforementioned crime lord takes his car as payment for Arah’s father Hossein’s (Marshall Manesh) drug-induced debt. Dad’s a junkie, he can barely make ends meet, and he’s lost in a world that seems unfriendly. He has no problem stealing but it’s usually small things to make him happy (a cat in the opening scene) or keep him alive (earrings to pay the debt). One strange night at a costume, while dressed as a vampire, he meets the real one in town and a unique bond is formed. “The Girl” (which is all she’s ever known as) can tell that Arash is a unique, kind soul. Should she let him live? Will she? Or will he let her down as all the men in this world seem to do to those around them?
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a visual piece with stunning black-and-white cinematography from Lyle Vincent (who also shot this year’s Midnight hit Cooties). Reminiscent of a graphic novel, Girl Who contains fantastic imagery, amplified by Amirpour’s willingness to linger over a shot for the sake of mood. After the Girl brings Arash back to her room, she plays the great “Death” by White Lies, as a mirror ball spins above, and Amirpour doesn’t rush a thing. She lets the entire song play. It’s just one example of the meditative tone of the film, one that doesn’t fall neatly into horror expectations by any stretch. This is a moody, somber vampire film. It’s not Twilight nor John Carpenter’s Vampires. It’s a dark, art piece that provides striking visuals at every turn.
I just wish the visuals led to something more. While I found Girl Who beautiful to look at, I never felt engaged with it beyond an exercise in style. Is it cool to watch an Iranian girl’s black hijab flow behind her like a vampire’s cape? Hell yes. But where is that image taking us? Girl is often too slowly paced for its own good, losing atmosphere by refusing to advance plot. It is a fine tonal balance to make a film like this one that has so little narrative thrust and Amirpour sometimes loses that battle. I can’t wait to see what she does next, given the incredible eye for composition on display here, but Girl Who still registers as too shallow to be truly effective.