A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night
In a black and white landscape, a construction site of some kind by the look of it, a cool looking character, all James Dean white shirt, jeans and cigarette, sits and waits. After a few moments, he ducks inside a small structure, and then emerges holding a small cat. He walks away, has a glib exchange with a young boy about the quality of his car, and then drives off. Behind him, as he travels, we catch a glimpse of a small valley, like a dried up river bed, that is full of sprawled corpses.
Welcome to A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, the feature film directorial debut of Iranian-American filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour. An “Iranian vampire western”, the film is probably the direct opposite, in terms of uniqueness, tone and style, to the last film I reviewed, a creature from a very different part of the world of cinema. A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night caught my eye in the JDIFF programme, but I didn’t get the chance to see it. But Netflix solves all problems, so I was able to give it a look last week. You never really know what you’re going to get with stuff like this – incredible supernatural tale, or some new wave arthouse nonsense seemed like the most likely candidates – but the premise and positive buzz surrounding A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night were enough to get me interested.
Arash (Arash Mandi) is a down on his luck resident of “Bad City”, a rundown Iranian suburb well worth its moniker, who lives with his drug addict father (Marshell Manesh) and suffers from the attention of peddler/pimp Saheed (Dominic Rains). But Arash’s life, and the lives of many others in Bad City, change with the intervention of the mysterious “Girl”(Sheila Vand) who walks the streets at night, far more than she seems.
The opening sequence that I described above is a good litmus test for how much appreciation you’re going to have for A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night. It’s weird, has random set of cuts and scenes with no discernible meaning, but it is shot rather nicely, and has a certain enthralling nature, that words can’t really describe. The mood, and sense that you have a very hard-pressed guy in a very bleak troublesome landscape, is instantly created.
But it is “artsy” in so many ways, to the point of inaccessibility. There are shots and cutaways, short sequences of dancing men and women, repeated glimpses of oil pumps working and dialogue between characters that will leave you more bewildered than anything. I’ll never apologise for my inability to look at things like this and not see anything other than nonsensical filmmaking (see my review of The Second Game for more on that score).
But A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, while containing plenty of that sort of thing (I’m always tempted to describe it as “Pukeahontas”-type stuff), actually does have a narrative, and that narrative isn’t bad at all, it’s just missing some elements, perhaps intentionally. The story can engage you, but it probably won’t leave you immensely entertained. A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is a film very much placing style over substance, a dicey prospect, and one that essentially dooms any chance it may have of finding a mainstream audience.
But there is a lot to like here. The setting, the ominously titled “Bad City”, is remarkably well presented. The body pit that nobody seems to care about, the small cramped apartments next to the larger mansions, the desolate, quiet streets that are the harbinger of monsters and the grimness of the lighting, which mixes with clouds of smoke and dank shadows throughout, becomes irrevocably sketched in your mind. Bad City is a place of bad things, an environ to be fled from if you can get the chance. Its inhabitants are either twisted human beings, people who lost their way long ago, or characters seeking desperately for a way out. It’s not hard to conjure up a comparison to Frank Miller’s Sin City in many ways, but while that urban hellhole was ultra-stylised to the point of parody, Bad City seems all too real.
With a good setting you have solid bedrock, and A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night takes off from there. But as a “vampire western”, I don’t think that it really works all that well. The western element seems largely invented to me – no showdowns here, no law fighting order, though maybe a dash of revenge and a hooker with a heart of gold. And as a supernatural thing, a vampire movie, it doesn’t really establish itself all that well: the titular Girl, the bloodsucker who wonders the streets preying on the unjust and the abusers of women, doesn’t really have to be a vampire: it only comes up directly in the story twice. She could have been an ordinary person with a knife or a gun, and making her a vampire doesn’t really do much for the narrative at all.
So, with the lack of enough western or vampire elements to mark it out as one, the other, or a mishmash of both properly, what is A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night? It’s sort of a twisted love story in actual fact, one with a very strong attachment of urban flight latched on. The Girl doesn’t even turn up in the story until Arash and his circumstances have been firmly established: he seems to be the main character, and the two just sort of stumble into each other’s lives and form a connection. The central premise seems to be whether the two, from such different places and with such different experiences, can actually end up with each other, or whether they will have a more final resolution. But even that is a bit of a stretch: there are sub-plots and vague hints of sub-plots that also intercede too. Aghash’s drug addled father, the prostitute that once had a dream but has now lost it, the somewhat unhinged criminal, the pretty rich Girl who initially seems like the target of Arash’s affections, and the little boy who becomes a surprising witness to the Girl’s activities. They swan in and out of the main narrative throughout the course of A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, without ever really leaving the kind of impression that they should, though they do plenty to detract from the main plot.
There is a more traditional, and perhaps better, story to be told from these ingredients. Arash, this achingly cool young man, whose resemblance to James Dean is most likely intentional, needs to face off with a criminal in defence of his worthless father. The Girl, a vampire, has a need to avenge herself on the people who do bad things in Bad City, perhaps from memories of her transformation. They meet, they find a common cause, love blossoms. But the arthouse elements of the production take over. Instead of an active antagonist in the form of Saeed, the film decides to leave a question mark over the Girl. Instead of a gradual build-up in their relationship, Arash and the Girl seem to fall for each other alarmingly fast. Their first meeting, as the Girl leaves Saheed’s abode, is rife with tension and interest from both parties, and it’s obvious that the two are heads straight into each other’s arms.
From there we get some well put together scenes featuring the two, but no firm idea of the Girl’s larger purpose when it comes to what she is doing, while Arash’s own personal journey becomes a lackadaisical one with the removal of his main problem. He becomes largely a spectator to the Girl, an interesting, but ultimately fruitless reversal of traditional gender roles in film I suppose, but the Girl just isn’t presenting enough about herself to be as interesting as she needs to be. She stands apart, and is the main mover of A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night’s “action”, and doesn’t require violence to be so. But I feel like the creation of a truly good female character in the form of the Girl needed more: more back-story, more purpose, more activity.
That’s not to say that the film devolves into a car crash or anything. It saves itself with the mostly silent but intense scenes between the leading two and a interesting and tension filled final ten minutes, as both of them confront the inner nature of themselves, and what it means for their future. Arash’s father and the prostitute who sums up so much of what Bad City does to people find themselves caught in the middle. A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night meanders for much of its last half hour/45 minutes, but at least manages to set-up the semblance of a proper finale. Whether that is worth the wait, or the patience required, is up to the individual. I thought it was, but I’ll understand if others don’t think so.
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is an interesting one in acting stakes. The dialogue is limited, so the cast have to be strong in their largely muted interaction. And they are, for the most part. Mandi has that quiet desperation and anger to him, very much in the vein of 1950’s heartthrobs, while Vand carries a certain poise and sense of hidden menace throughout her performance. She is mostly passive through large sections, but the true light of her ability shines out at others, such as when she and Mandi share an involving and intimate moment in her room. No teary eyed declarations or passionate monologues here: just two quiet beings who prefer to let their look and physical actions do most of the talking. They have a spark between them, one not enunciated through overt sexuality, but one that exists nonetheless. That spark carries much of A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night’s second half.
The supporting cast is a more mixed affair. I couldn’t really get to into the roles of Manesh and Marno, who were one-note and largely forgettable: not even Marno’s dance could really attract too much of my attention. Rains’ Saheed was one note too, but it was a far more interesting note, and part of me felt that the film could have done with him getting far more screen time than he eventually wound up with.
Amirpour’s visuals are probably the strongest part of the production though. The black and white obviously adds a noir feel, but one that actually suits. Bright lights intermingle with shadows, their effect magnified by the bodies of those that pass through. Imposing buildings, vehicles and machinery are like monoliths in the pale lamplight. Characters are framed against each other brilliantly, whether it is Arash staring at his lost father, or the Girl consciously mirroring the movements of the same as she stalks on the streets of Bad City, a dance that is at once provocative and threatening. The direction reaches powerful heights at times: as Arash and the Girl move slowly towards each other in her room, making a profound and emotionally obvious connection, as the two talk outside a power plant, as the lights of Aghash’s car signify their constantly changing relationship.
Plenty of scenes do go on to long, and A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night could do with a more finicky editor. At 105 minutes, much of the experience is a bit of slog, as numerous scenes seem shot a minute or two over time, past the point when the plot has be advanced or the tone signified. Amirpour, more sued to short films, seems to have gone overboard on her first attempt at the feature verity, and with some pruning, a more focused, digestible 90 minute product might have improved the overall quality of the production. A scene that springs to mind immediately on that score is that between Saeed and the Girl: an over elaborated seduction that gets turned on its head, long after the point of the scene had been made. Less, in this case, should have been more. Such warnings should have been heeded, especially with a script as basic as the one we got: characters actually don’t talk all that much in A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, and the long periods of silence make the bloated running time seem even worse.
Music plays an important part in this production, and it’s a varied bag. There is some dull and basic electronica, some stuff that sounds more obviously Iranian, but also plenty of western choices and influences. A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is a rare film in that its somewhat limited soundtrack – large parts of the film match its principals silence on an auditory level – actually accentuates the larger production properly, adding the right mood and flavour to the scenes in which the music actually appears. “Death” by White Lies, used in that crucial bed room scene, is probably the best example.
Some brief spoiler talk follows.
-The scene in her room, one that takes in the kaleidoscope of newspapers and images on the wall behind and the entrancing music from the Girl’s old record player, might actually be one of the best scenes of the year thus far, as the romance between the two gets spelled out suitably and subtlety, as the Girl seems at first to be ready to tear into Arash’s throat, but then goes for resting her head on his chest instead.
-That’s after the two first meet, with this widely differing appearances: she, her cloak occasionally billowing like Nosferatu, but on a stolen skateboard, he in a Dracula Halloween costume. I’m not sure what Amilpour was going for there, apart from some kind of intentional irony.
-Really wasn’t sure what to make of the scene between the Girl and the child. She terrifies him into being “a good boy”, seemingly for her own amusement. If the Girl has some grudge with men generally, it quickly vanishes when she meets Arash.
-Arash’s father was a fairly reprehensible individual, but one can’t really help but feel some sympathy for him, hopelessly addicted to drugs and just seeking any kind of connection with somebody he used to be close to. The Girl takes him anyway, and doesn’t feel inclined to tell Arash what has happened.
-Arash figures it out of course, and just as he and the Girl are on the verge of getting out of Bad City alive. The final moments are among the film’s best, as we wonder whether Arash will get back in the car with the Girl and forgive her (or even thank her) or if he’ll turn on her, or run. He does get back into the car, turns the lights on and drives away, as if all of the business in Bad City will stay there, and all he need concern himself with is the future. But has the Girl really changed her spots? Will she hunt again wherever they end up? Will Arash be a target some day? It’s a suitably vague, and almost cliché ending, as the two ride off into the darkness, and out of our knowledge.
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night at night is very much a mixed film. I found the direction, visual choices and acting to be of a fairly high level, and there are moments in the course of the experience when things really do come together in just the right way. But the actual plot is meandering to a fault, the film is too long, the script is too basic and too much of the effort put into the production seems to have been on how it looks and how it feels over issues of narrative, character and genuine audience engagement. It could certainly have been better. That being said, Amilpour has made an impression, and I think she is, on the basis of A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, capable of doing better in the future. She crafted something relatively unique here, and that should be praised. Many will deride A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, but others may find something worthwhile to see in its dark toned tale of love and vengeance. A recommendation, with reservations.
(All images are copyright of Vice Films and Kino Lober).