Vampire As a Hipster, by Josh Long
You might be surprised, as I was, to find that the most hipster-y vampire movie this year is not the one directed by Jim Jarmusch. Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night takes that prize, and let me be clear that that isn’t a complaint. The movie’s got all of the good things about hipsterism – cool music, characters built on an iconic look; and it’s an Iranian vampire movie in black and white, for crying out loud. This film might be the coolest thing to see at the movies all year.
Based on Aminpour’s award-winning short film of the same name, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night takes place in a fictionalized Iranian town called Bad City. The town lives up to its name – it’s populated by unsavory characters, and is built around a central drainage ditch filled with bodies that no one seems to notice, anymore at least. Young man Arash (Arash Marandi) must make ends meet to support his drug-addicted father. Meanwhile a mysterious young woman (Sheila Vand, credited as simply “The Girl”) makes her way through the town at night, descending on the unsuspecting. But we begin to wonder whether she is hunting them or whether she just wants to connect with someone. When she and Arash meet by chance, romance blooms, but not without its difficulties.
The film bills itself as Iranian, but that’s something of a misnomer. All the dialogue is in Persian (Farsi), and it’s in a way meant to take place in Iran. In reality, it was shot in Taft, California, with actors all based in Los Angeles. Amirpour herself was born in London, and grew up primarily in the US, although she does claim Iranian heritage. The result of this conglomeration is a beautiful mish-mash of culture that at the same time seems uniquely Iranian and uniquely western. The film takes place in a Persian world clearly immersed in western culture – her two lead characters dress like James Dean and Jean Seberg. The film’s music (a fantastic soundtrack) ranges from Persian bands like Radio Tehran to British post-punk from White Lies. It isn’t easy for a film to straddle two cultures without seeming disjointed, but Girl does it with ease.
It isn’t just the concept of the film that makes it so enjoyable. It’s expertly directed, knows how to build spectacular tension, and has beautiful black and white cinematography. Shots feel crafted rather than showy. Sound design makes itself indispensable to the tone. It’s hard to believe that this is the filmmaker’s feature debut. Besides the technical expertise, there’s a lot of depth to plumb in the story. The film is good enough as a cool, off-the-wall vampire story. But one can easily read more under the surface. Is The Girl – the only female character who wears the traditional hijab – a symbol for Iran, lashing out at those she sees as enemies, but secretly idolizing western culture? Or is it a feminist fable, where the only way female characters can find agency is through violence? Perhaps both? There’s a quality to the story that makes it engaging on the surface, but yields even more if we dig deeper.
Regrettably, “black-and-white” and “foreign language” are two big turn-offs for typical American audiences, but hopefully these elements won’t keep A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night from getting the attention it deserves. At very least, it is comforting to find producers who are willing to take on something so seemingly risky (Elijah Wood, one of the executive producers, has said that the B&W and Farsi were positives for them, instead of drawbacks). It’s super-cool, deserves the cult following it will undoubtedly build, and showcases a great new talent in Ana Lily Amirpour. Don’t miss this one.