by Lee Purvey
No director could be expected to develop a sincere talent and appreciation for filmmaking without a deep, even obsessive immersion in others' films. Sometimes, however, there appears a feature that is so obviously constructed from its creator's fixation on the work of others that it lacks any sort of authentic whole, even as derivative or homage. Such is the unfortunate case with A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Ana Lily Amirpour's “Iranian Vampire Western” that ultimately feels like a movie made by somebody who's watched a lot of other people's movies.
Walker Art Center
October 24-26 & October 31
Director: Ana Lily Amirpour
Producers: Ana Lily Amirpour, Justin Begnaud, Sina Sayyah
Writer: Ana Lily Amirpour
Cinematographer: Lyle Vincent
Editor: Alex O'Flinn
Cast: Sheila Vand, Arash Marandi, Marshall Manesh, Mozhan Marnò, Dominic Rains, Rome Shadanloo, Milad Eghbali, Reza Sixo Safai
Premiere: January 19, 2014 – Sundance Film Festival
US Distributor: Kino Lorber
The story follows two separate protagonists. The sweet, hardworking Arash (relative newcomer to the screen Arash Marandi) works as a handyman and groundskeeper for a wealthy family to support his addict father, Hossein (Marshall Manesh). Meanwhile, a mysterious and largely silent character played by Sheila Vand (probably best known for her role as the Canadian ambassador's Iranian housekeeper in Argo) begins to appear, lurking on the nocturnal streets of Bad City, the quiet Iranian town where the film takes place.
The action begins when Hossein's dealer, Saeed (Dominic Rains), shows up at the family's apartment demanding payment for drug debts. Finding Hossein unforthcoming, Saeed instead takes the keys for Arash's most prized possession, a soupe- up sports car, and speeds off to a meeting with the prostitute Atti (veteran actress Mozhan Marnò), for whom he serves as a pimp. Following a brief interaction that in no uncertain terms establishes Saeed's general unsavoriness (he robs Atti of her cut of her profits before demanding oral sex and throwing her out of his car), he heads back to his luxurious apartment, gaining the company of Vand's character (credited simply as “The Girl”) along the way. To no one's surprise, the silent and heavily made up Girl—whom the doltishly misogynistic Saeed takes for a pickup—reveals a predilection for vampirism and the dealer-pimp is quickly dispatched, becoming the first in a series of (typically morally faulted and invariably male) victims of the sultry bloodsucker.
The stage thus set for a vampire bloodbath, Girl Walks Home suddenly hops tracks when Arash, come in search of his automobile, encounters The Girl and ignites the spark of a unlikely romance. This is only the first in a series of impulsive turnarounds in what quickly becomes an unfortunately schizophrenic film—at turns monster flick, addiction drama, and lite romance.
This is Amirpour's feature debut and, to her credit, the film displays an impressive attention to detail for a first-time director, most notably in its stylized audio-visual aesthetic. This is a film in which every component part has been meticulously crafted to fit a very particular cinematic world—a world in which every hit off a cigarette produces a harsh crackle, every footstep carries its maximum muffled threat, the players' faces are rendered in a striking black and white that brings to mind the numerous cinematic adaptations of graphic novels released over the last decade, Sin City first among them.
And, for about the first half an hour or so, it totally works. In general, Amirpour's script is extremely light on dialogue—especially with regards to Vand's character, who doesn't speak a word for the first thirty-plus minutes of the film yet still manages to convey quite a bit (even if it's more sex and menace than dramatic nuance)—so the first glimpses of characterization take the form of fascinating, stylish vignettes.
Following a short appearance for some spooky background lurking, our first real introduction to The Girl comes in her apartment as, having shed the full body hijab she wears on the street, she performs a sensuous dance to Farah's “Dancing Girls,” contorting her arms and torso dreamily, before ominously applying the garish makeup that attracts the likes of Saeed. Later, in the villain's apartment, Rains delivers a compelling performance of his own, as Saeed undertakes a darkly comic erotic ritual, making his way through several lines of coke before gyrating aggressively in front of The Girl, who simply looks on in inscrutable silence, plotting the moment she will strike.
As ostensible set pieces of a larger narrative arc, these scenes are excellent, but as the film progresses, it gradually becomes clear that these flashy sequences comprise both the parts and whole. What's more, lacking firmer dramatic ground to build upon, Amirpour's scenes quickly denigrate into predictable genre cliches. There's the nightmarish slow-mo club scene, after Arash takes ecstasy. There's the dreamy slow-mo would-be make-out scene shamelessly lifted from Drive's famous elevator sequence (the catch here is that instead of kissing Arash, The Girl nearly bites him). There's the Graduate-citing long shot ending.
The result feels like something of a collage piece of the indie auteurs of the last quarter century. Jim Jarmusch is an influence here—especially with his early works' heavy emphasis on diegetic musical sequences—as is Nicolas Winding Refn, but without a doubt the strongest presence is David Lynch (a fact only confirmed by the constant stream of Lynch ephemera in Amirpour's Twitter account). The perpetual night and ominously vacant urban setting of Bad City are straight out of Eraserhead, as is the spartan, frequently inscrutable dialogue. Some of the better scenes, featuring Vand, Rains, and others (a highlight is a decontextualized dance sequence between a semi-transvestite local and a balloon), are reminiscent of the nightmarish odysseys of Mulholland Dr. and Blue Velvet.
Yet despite its surrealist trappings, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is far from a Lynch film. Instead, it takes a Lynchian setting and supplements it with a Winding Refn soundtrack, a Jarmusch sense of pacing, a pulp noir color palate, and, well, you get the picture. Unfortunately, what Amirpour's debut lacks is exactly what makes Lynch's work so incredible: an unfaltering faith in its own artistic vision.