Precocious, faux-primitive, and bracingly post-punk, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a glorious pastiche of styles; a haunting love story between two misfits; a joyful mash-up of genre, archetype, and iconography; and a refreshing take on one of the oldest legends in existence. Sly, slick, slinky, and fearlessly subversive, it’s a wholly original work without a single unique thought or idea.
In the Iranian ghost-town Bad City, a place that reeks of death and isolation, the townspeople are unaware they are being stalked by a lonesome vampire. When young Arash loses his car to a drug kingpin as a result of his father’s uncontrolled gambling debts, he finds an unexpected niqab-wearing ally who harbours a dark secret.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night grabs you by the throat with its moody style, pulsating soundtrack, and offbeat editing. The wildly inventive combination is intoxicating: absurd, eerie, languid, possessed by the calm of an inevitable beauty. As seductive as its title – a declarative sentence that encompasses many mysteries – A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night mimics the rhythms of silent films, with a dreamlike pull into a dreamspace all its own.
Shot in Bakersfield, CA, which passes for the nocturnal reaches of Iran, writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour reveals herself to be a sensualist and voracious cinephile, openly referencing films from Godard to Point Break, falling in line with a tradition of wry formalism stretching back through Aki Kaurismäki. Amirpour combs through history, blending conventional elements – the classic tones of Nosferatu and Frankenstein, the pop culture genius of Kill Bill, the political overtones of Persepolis, the hipster coolness of Only Lovers Left Alive – into something rather groundbreaking. Its prolific influences span spaghetti westerns, graphic novels, horror films, and the Iranian New Wave.
Amirpour’s unmistakable compositions also borrow from outside: wide, evocative vistas are intercut with murky city streets where shadowy figures follow one another. Employing chiaroscuro to create an unearthed aesthetic, Amirpour boasts an incredible eye for arrangements, and a wonderful gift for choreography. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is close to the noir sensibility of Let the Right One In, and contains the most enthralling bedroom decor since Emma Watson’s record-dappled walls in The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
With sparse dialogue, spooky atmosphere, and a sensationally eclectic score, much of the narrative is conveyed by images alone. Lyle Vincent’s unrelentingly gorgeous high-contrast monochrome cinematography gets us almost all the way there, his black-and-white visuals and stark landscapes almost frostbitten in their cold clarity. Amirpour is more concerned with creating memorable tableaux, which her characters often drift around like kelp in deep water.
Cryptic and solemnly fatalistic, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a beguiling and unpredictably funny look at personal desire, about the willful ignorance required to see the best in the people we love and sometimes suck on. It creeps up on you with the nimble powers of its supernatural focus. With its bloodsucker mentality, jukebox funkiness, and gender-politics righteousness, it may become a totem for the hipster world. The expressionist silhouettes, wilted patriarchy, and floating chador make the whole experience feel forbidden; there’s something in the nothing.
It’s true that A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night feels more like an elaborate, code-scrambling gesture than the organic statement of a fully-formed artist, and when all is digested, its strangeness seems as empty of substance as cotton candy. But why does it matter? It’s a debut, and it has style, imagination, and a devil-may-care attitude that’s insanely alluring, and sometimes spellbinding. And it’s chic and sophisticated to boot.
Just when you thought you’d seen every possible variation on the vampire tale, along comes a fractured Farsi fright flick that serves as a striking calling card for Amirpour. If A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is the kind of promising first feature that can’t help but imply that its creator will do better next time, it’s also an essential reminder that artists working from an old playbook can still delight and surprise.