Friday, May 01, 2015

Cult-Movie Review: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) is a beautifully-photographed, unconventional vampire film, one enlivened by its strange location (the fictional “Bad City” in Iran), and a trance-like mood. 

That vibe is enhanced, periodically, by moments of music and dance. The film isn’t a musical in any sense -- it’s horror through-and-through -- but important characters dance on at least three separate occasions, signifying motive and mood through movement.  

The aura these moments generate is remarkable.  It’s not languorous, but downright hypnotic.  Although there is relatively little dialogue throughout the picture, and the movements of the narrative are subtle, sometimes slight, you still can’t take your eyes off the screen. 

The film is directed by Ana Lily Amirpour, based on her own 2011 short film, and she imbues every black-and-white frame of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night with energy, intelligence, and a painterly eye. Some of the location photography -- the film was actually shot in California --– contributes to the overall feel of a de-humanized, “vampiric” world, one where positive human connection is harder and harder to come by.

The film’s terror emerges early, and effectively.  A teenage girl -- and vampire -- prowls the streets at night, seeking targets of opportunity.  She stalks her victims, and often we see only her as a specter when she kills, a looming silhouette in a black chador -- sometimes out of focus -- but often frighteningly still.  

Her victims, intriguingly, tend to be those who aren’t serving the community in any positive way: a heroin addict who has ruined his son’s life, a hobo on the streets, an arrogant and dangerous drug-dealer, and so forth. One of the film’s best scenes involves the vampire's pursuit and approach of a young, wayward child, and her struggle to assess if he is just an innocent child or, like the others, a drain on the life of the city.

Atypical in its rhythm and cadences, but ultimately hopeful about humanity and the possibilities of love, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is one of the most beautiful horror films I’ve screened recently, and if you’re in the mood for something different, a little off-kilter, it’s worth taking a walk on the wild side with it.

“I’m lost.  Where are we?”

While “The Girl” (Sheila Vand) -- a vampire -- stalks the streets of Bad City, seeking prey by which to sustain herself, a young man, Arash (Arash Marandi) adopts a cat, and tends to his father, Hossein (Marshall Manesh), a drug addict.  

Hossein is ruining Arash’s life a piece at a time, and owes money to Saeed (Dominic Rains), a local drug dealer. Saeed takes Arash’s car to settle his father’s debt, leaving Arash at loose ends, wondering how to get his ride back. He settles on the theft of a pair of expensive earrings at the home where he works a job.

The Girl, however, has targeted Saeed as her next victim, and allows him to seduce her, and take her back to his place.  There she kills him, almost exactly as Arash arrives to trade the earrings for the car.  

Now, the Girl is aware of Arash…

Surprisingly, over a series of nights in Bad City, The Girl and Arash find themselves growing attracted to one another, even as the Girl continues to feed her habit, murdering locals to sate herself.

When Arash throws his father out of his home, Arash kills him, meaning that Arash and the Girl will have to contend with her violent act -- and nature -- if they are to share a future together, one in which they flee Bad City.

“Don’t count the things you’ve lost.  Count the things left.”

Periodically, in A Girl Walks Home at Night, Amirpour cuts to images of ugly black machinery -- oil digging rigs – as they move mindlessly and repetitively to extract treasure from the earth. These machines are a ubiquitous blight on the landscape, and represent, in a sense, how the world itself is vampiric. We take what we need to survive and flourish from the life-blood of the Earth itself.  We don’t ask.  We just take, around the clock, all day, every day.

Other characters in the film are defined subtly as vampires too. Saeed is a pimp, a drug dealer and a thug, and sucks the life out of the community, keeping people hooked on drugs and enslaved in poverty.  

Even addicted Hossein might be termed a vampire, as he leeches off his son’s love and sense of family obligation, without giving anything back. 

Ironically, in this company, the Girl does not seem so terrible a creature.  

She’s a vampire too, but her desire, her appetite, is controlled, in a sense, by her morality. She doesn’t kill without thought, or at random. She watches her victims, stalking them, before deciding if they deserve to live.  Sure, she’s become the judge, jury, and executioner, but there’s a pro-social aspect to her acts too.  She takes Saeed off the streets. She kills Hossein, removing an impediment to Arash’s happiness, and satisfying a man with no future, only a past, who longs for death.  

We know The Girl is not evil, outright, because of her dealings with the boy child. She asks him repeatedly if he is a good boy.  He answers that he is, but she warns him that she will be watching him, anyway.  

In other words, she scares him straight. In the absence of any moral authority in the aptly-named Bad City, “The Girl” fills a void. Unlike the oil diggers, she is not only merely taking, but establishing a framework of morality, oddly enough.

A cat plays a large role in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, and one senses that the cat may reflect significantly on The Girl and her nature.  The cat might be considered a vampire in a sense too, going wherever it can to survive, taking resources from people who care for it.  But like The Girl, it does not simply kill, it does not simply harm others. Instead, it offers something: companionship.  Both the feline and the Girl may be “vampiric” in some sense, but they have other qualities which offset their need to take.  Also, importantly, they are vampiric by nature; by biology, not by choice. 

One cannot say the same of Saeed, or Hossein, or even those who suck the Earth dry of its black blood.

The interludes in the film involving dance are among the most interesting moments on display here. Saeed dances for The Girl, a dance of desire and would-be seduction. But there is something garish and lurid about his dance. It is not a dance of beauty, but one of hunger.  Again, this is an intriguing reversal because it is the Girl who is literally a vampire.  But in their scene together in his home, it is Saeed who is on the make, and out to take something.

Later in the film, Hossein asks a prostitute to dance for him, and she does so, illuminated by a light in the shabby bed-room.  This light has the effect of creating a kind of glow or halo-effect around her, as though she is heavenly, or sent by God.  Hossein is in a drug haze, and again, the dance that he perceives seems to be one of desire, both for his long-gone wife, and for the bliss of forgetfulness, of stupor.  His dance is about seeing beauty, and letting go out of that beauty, of life itself, in a sense.  This is one of his final moments, one of his final glimpses of beauty.

We see The Girl dance too, and oddly enough, her dance appears somewhat innocent by contrast to the ones I noted specifically above.. Not impulsive (for she is not impulsive), but innocent.  Once more, this seems like a visual avenue of suggesting that though she is, biologically-speaking, a vampire, The Girl is not vampiric. 

She possesses the soul of a girl, not a monster.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a romance between a vampire and a boy, and if that in any way sounds at all like the premise of the Twilight films, I apologize for suggesting the connection. But this is not a teen romance in any stereotypical way, or in any way that you can imagine, frankly. The film has more in common with Let the Right One In (2008), than it does with Twilight.  This movie is about two people finding each other -- discovering each other -- in a terrible place, in a world of takers and alienation.

At times, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night might be considered slow by mainstream standards, but every image, every frame, every composition is riveting, paints a picture, or tells a story.  There is humor in the film at times, namely Arash’s outing as Count Dracula, and the expectations raised by the title.  A girl walking home alone at night is supposed to be vulnerable, right  Not this one.   But the overall takeaway from the film is that there are vampires of necessity and vampires of choice. 

You don’t want to be a vampire by choice.

1 comment:

  1. An Iranian Vampire Spaghetti Western in sumptuous black and white! And it all works perfectly. Moody, romantic, beautifully acted, just scary and funny enough, with an indie sense of danger, in a world that look familiar but yet is like nothing we've ever seen before. Beautifully directed. Ana Lily Amirpour has the patience to hold on a scene. And it's got the best soundtrack we've heard in a long time. All that, plus Sheila Vand will become your new movie crush. LOVE THIS FILM!