Review: 'A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night' is a new twist on the familiar vampire tale
PARK CITY - The easy joke is to call this film "the best Iranian vampire film I've ever seen," but that's reductive and unfair to this gorgeous, sad, haunting accomplishment by writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour.
Why do we make so many movies about monsters? What do they tell us about ourselves? At this point, if someone's making a film about a vampire, they have to be doing something else at the same time or there's no point. Amirpour draws on the traditions of the genre, but by setting her story in Bad City, an Iranian town on the edge of an oil field, she is also telling us about the dreams and frustrations and fears of being a woman in this society, powerless by definition, empowered by this fantasy. The Girl (Sheila Vand) rarely speaks, but we know what she wants and how she feels based on who she makes victims and who she spares.
Fans of "Let The Right One In" may get a similar vibe from some scenes in this movie, but The Girl is no child, nor is Arash (Arash Marandi), a gardener struggling with his feelings about his junkie father Hossein (Marshall Manesh). Hossein keeps buying heroin long past his ability to pay for it, leaving Arash to pick up his mess and deal with Saeed (Dominic Rains), a drug dealing pimp who proves that every society has its own variation on the Guido. One night, Saeed makes the mistake of inviting The Girl into his home, taking her silence as a sort of cowed obedience. Once she feeds on him, she leaves, and when Arash arrives a few moments later, he realizes that he has an opportunity. He takes Saeed's briefcase full of drugs and money and sets himself up as the new Saeed, dealing drugs to anyone except his father, who is trapped in their apartment, grappling with withdrawal.
Arash has dreams of a better life, and working for the uber-rich to landscape their lawns means he gets to see that lifestyle up close. He sees how Shaydah (Rom Shadanloo) lives, and he covets not only her, but her whole world. When she runs into him at a party where he's selling ecstasy, she manages to talk him out of some of it, and he sees this as his way into her life. She even gets him to take one of his own pills. But just because he's moved from one service industry to another, that doesn't suddenly make her view him as an equal, and he ends up wandering away from the costume party by himself, stoned out of his skull for the first time in his life.
And that's when he meets The Girl.
Sheila Vand plays her role with very little dialogue to help define her character. Everything we know about her we get from gestures and behavior. Who she stalks. How she stalks them. It's a very difficult role, but deceptively so. When they meet, Arash is still dressed as Dracula from the party, and the two of them connect. She sees how helpless and trusting he is, and instead of turning him into one more body to throw into this ditch that's full of men who have mistreated the weaker members of Bad City, she takes care of Arash, makes sure he's okay. That first meeting leaves him anxious to find her again, finally feeling like he's connected to someone, and Arash Marandi's work in the film is great, enormously appealing and sympathetic. He may be selling Saeed's drugs, but The Girl can see that Arash isn't preying on anyone, and she finds herself drawn to him repeatedly. There's a beautiful sequence where the two of them go on something like a date, all centered around a pair of stolen earrings, and regardless of whether this is a vampire film or not, it's just a lovely example of two people, each scared of the worst parts of themselves, trying to connect to the best part of someone else.
Lyle Vincent's black and white cinematography reminds me of early Jarmusch, and I think there's something compelling about the landscape that Amirpour etches here. Watching people struggle in the shadows of these always-churning oil pumps makes this feel both familiar and alien. One thing that this film would seem to suggest is that there is no real difference here from western life in terms of trappings or technology, but for women, there is still a gulf between the life that pop culture tells them to want and the life that their society expects of them, a gulf that The GIrl is determined to collapse with her actions. She refuses to be what is expected of her, and there's something fascinating about the way her burqa stands in for the conventional vampire a cape, a symbol of the way women are restricted turned into a symbol of her power.
The film's final stretch strips away any secrets either of them holds, and Arash finds himself facing a difficult decision: can he love this person, regardless of what they've done? And for The Girl, the choice to actually connect to someone for something more than survival or sustenance seems impossible, but she also sees something different in Arash, something that actually pushes past her basic needs and her sense of simmering anger. Arash has to decide how responsible he is for his father, who has given up on life, and he has to decide what it's worth to him to try at something like happiness. If we're going to be with someone else and really commit to them, heart and soul, we often have to look past something. You can't judge people only on the worst things they've done, just as you can't forgive them purely for the best things they've done. We are each an accumulation of the choices we've made, and the relationships that work the best are the ones we enter, eyes open just as wide as our hearts. "A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night" ends on a note of uncertainty, but that is true of all of our stories.
I have no idea what will happen with "A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night," but I hope it gets US distribution and that we see more from Amirpour, a genuinely new voice in world genre cinema.