As singular a film as I’ve ever seen, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night threatens to become yet another triumph of style over substance, but as it progresses, a simple, rather tender love story emerges which gives it the emotional heft to make it truly great. Like Vampyr, it uses gorgeous B&W cinematography and striking direction to create a haunting mood; the score and the archetypal characters and situations recall Leone’s westerns; the use of modern music and the delirious, fragmented story make it a product of its era.
But all those elements come together into something really special, and it’s a triumph for everyone involved–but most especially its writer and director, Ana Lily Amirpour.
The setting is Bad City, a run-down village 100 miles from anywhere which consists mostly of factories, ramshackle houses, and a riverbed full of corpses. Certainly nothing like the law exists there–and so men like Saeed (Dominic Rains), a pimp and dealer, thrive. And when Hossein (Marshall Manesh), an old heroin addict, ends up deep in Saeed’s debt, Arash (Arash Marandi), his hardworking son, must give up his brand-new car to cover it. But one night, while being serviced by his prostitute Atti (Mozhan Marnò), Saeed notices a mysterious girl (Sheila Vand) watching; she vanishes moments later. Later, he encounters her on the street, and takes her back to his house, where he attempts to ply her with cocaine before trying to seduce her. Her response is to bare a pair of fangs and drain his blood.
Discovering Saeed’s body, Arash retrieves his car and Saeed’s money and drug stash, and begins dealing. One evening, having taken a great deal of ecstasy, he too encounters the Girl, who takes him back to her home, where they listen to music…and she does not bite him. He falls in love with her, and it seems she feels for him as well…but she is not eager to reveal her true nature to him. Can their blossoming romance thrive?
Increasingly, I realize the link between great direction and great cinematography, and one cannot discuss the greatness of A Girl Walks Home without discussing Lyle Vincent’s work. Sometimes B&W cinematography is unduly praised simply for being B&W; Nebraska was well-shot, but was hardly outstanding. Here, however, is a real case for the endurance of monochrome filmmaking. The compositions alone would make it memorable; Arash and the Girl in profile, her disco ball casting glints of light on the walls, she looking ahead, he looking at the back of her head, attraction flickering and blossoming between them, or the Girl soaring down the street towards the camera on a skateboard, her long black hijab billowing in the breeze.
But it’s the shading, the inky blacks, mournful grays, and washed-out whites which really make it. With them, Bad City becomes more bleak, but also more beautifully, a grim, almost surreally empty wasteland which is supposedly in Iran (the signs–and dialogue–are all in Farsi), but which was built (or found) in California, and as such is like nothing anywhere on Earth. And the blood (though there isn’t really that much of it) being black rather than red makes the film more haunting, more a fantasy than a true horror film.
Amirpour’s direction is frequently ingenious; there’s an excitement here, an enthusiasm for the medium and material that is rather thrilling. The film is not always brisk (even at 99 minutes, there’s a bit of fat, which I’ll discuss later), but the lovingly precise compositions, the images of faces, faces warm and tender, still and sad, grotesque and malicious, and the invigorating use of music take the very simple basic story and make something beautiful out of it.
Amirpour’s script (apparently based on a graphic novel she wrote) is so subsumed by her direction that it becomes hard to discuss; one does remember the dialogue so much as the images and score. The dialogue is often direct and to-the-point (more of the Spaghetti Western influence?), and the characters are archetypal: Arash is the basically good guy surrounded by evil, the Girl is the enigmatic phantom, Saeed is the bad man, Atti the embittered prostitute, and Hossein the old wreck (normally a drunk, here a junkie, though I think he’s a drunk as well). They play their parts, for the most part as you’d expect; what matters is how they look while doing it.
And yet, the love between the Girl and Arash touches one, perhaps because it is so simple and universal. There’s a scene where Arash, not knowing the Girl’s true nature, meets her (out by a factory, which looks quite striking as photographed here) and offers her a hamburger; we know she cannot eat it, and her inability to say so (or do so, for that matter) is rather heartbreaking. We’ve already seen the acts of love and kindness which set things off: when she tries to lure the stoned Arash to her home, he is barely able to walk, so she plants him on her skateboard and wheels him along; later, there’s the great shot of them together, which ends with her lifting up his head and regarding his neck…before lowering her head onto his chest. We know what this means for her, even if Arash does not.
And without giving away the full context of the ending, at first it appears we’ll end on an ambiguous note–then there is a revelation, which threatens to bring everything crashing down. Then a moment of contemplation (which on first viewing is rather excruciating), followed by the simple, understated triumph of love. A happy ending that feels earned, which suggests that sometimes everything turns out all right. One can forget the value of a true happy ending.
The performances, while necessarily secondary to Amirpour’s vision, are generally satisfactory. Top honors go to Vand, who conveys both somberness and menace with equal grace; the latter largely in a scene with The Street Urchin (Milad Eghbali), a young boy of whom the Girl demands, “Have you been a good boy?” He replies that he has, but she tells him not to lie and asks him the question again and again, as he shivers in terror. It’s a moment which reveals the film’s feminist underpinnings, with the Girl, to my mind, subtly doing her part to ensure that the Urchin grows up a respecter of women. Vand is truly commanding here, just as she is truly poignant in the moments when it seems her vampiric nature will keep her isolated–which makes the ending all the more satisfying.
Marandi is a suitable Arash, likable in a sort of nebbishy way, sympathetic even as he gives in, at least partially, to the corruption of Bad City (though he redeems himself in the film’s final moments). Rains is properly nasty, and Marnó brings the right kind of sultry burn-out to Atti. Manesh is as grotesque as Hossein ought to be. The film does falter in spending more time than it really needs to on Hossein’s attempts to kick heroin; it’s a minor issue, but we get the point pretty quickly, and the more time spent with him is less time spent with the Girl.
The soundtrack is marvelous; unfortunately, I don’t have access to a comprehensive soundtrack listing, nor am I sure what was written for the film and what was pre-existing (though this interview with Amirpour suggests most of it predates the film and influenced her in the making of it). There is an original song over the opening credits; I will see about putting it in the running for my Original Song category. In any case, the music enhances the mood of the film at every turn, be it orgiastic, melancholy, or unsettling. The aforementioned scene between Arash and the Girl is only strengthened by the choice of song; the Girl appears to be quite a connoisseur of house music.
Kudos also to Sergio De La Vega’s production design and the technical team as a whole; the budget cannot have been high, and the film’s level of accomplishment is all the more impressive because of it.
If this has not been one of my better reviews (admittedly, I’ve been in a bit of a funk and have gotten way behind in my writing), then perhaps it goes to show that a film like this is better seen and experienced than analyzed. That’s not to say the film is devoid of theme; on the contrary, it has a subtle but distinct feminist tone¹, and if the Girl were adopted as an icon, an antidote to the likes of Bella Swan, it would hardly be off-base. It would also get more people to watch this fine film.
In the end, though, what should motivate you to see this film is Ana Lily Amirpour’s vision, the brilliant cinematography, Sheila Vand’s haunting presence, and the final, quietly joyous moment of love triumphant.
¹I should note that the title has always reminded me of the widely circulated story about a girl who had to walk home alone one night, and passed by a man who later killed another girl, who said he spared the first girl because he saw two men (presumably angels) on either side of her.