Ana Lily Amirpour’s debut feature A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night describes itself as “the first Iranian Vampire Spaghetti Western“, a vivid and eccentric tagline for a very vivid and eccentric film. But there is much more hiding under its surface than this schlocky summary may suggest.
It is in fact an Iranian film only in a roundabout way – the characters and dialogue certainly are, but it was actually made entirely in Kern County, California (Amirpour is an Iranian-American born in England). This desert backdrop makes fertile ground for some sinister shenanigans, all shot in a suitably moody monochrome that boldly contrasts the arid daytime with the pitch-black night.
And so we pay a visit to “Bad City” and the handful of misfits weaving in and out of the shadows there. A drug-dealing pimp is out stealing cars and short changing one of his girls. A lonely teenager bumming around as gardener to a rich family tries to support his hopelessly strung out, drug-addicted dad. A kid hangs around on the street corner watching underneath the monolithic oil pumps drilling through the dust. These are ghostly figures out on the very limits, socially, geographically, even temporally. Then from nowhere appears a mysterious girl (Sheila Vand), who has seemingly been watching them all, and waiting, for who knows how long. No sooner has she appeared than she has tangled them all in her web, and as we find out she has the fangs to match her allure.
Who is this girl, exactly? She is shown as part vigilante, part ghoulish spirit, part bored teen kicking round her room listening to bizarre eighties music. The chador she sports while haunting Bad City is, incidentally, a stroke of tonal genius. Known primarily as part of a dress code meant to impart a certain modesty and reserve, the girl’s cloak here denotes more an angel of death. (There is also a mischievous moment early on, where a headscarf is used as a disguise for sexual indiscretion.) Whichever way you cut it, this film has serious bite.
All of which points towards the film’s triumph. In lesser hands the Western clichés (the ghost town, the luckless hero, the avenging outsider) would add up to less than the sum of their parts. But Amirpour has filled her film full of enigmatic inversions and sly twists to the usual story in order to make something altogether unique. It is a deliciously assured first feature and on the strength of this everyone should be watching out for Amirpour’s next move. Until then, I cannot wait to get my teeth into this one again.
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