“To the master bedroom where the vampires feast”
– “Monster Mash,” lyrics by Bobby Pickett
This film has been described as an Iranian feminist vampire movie and a spaghetti western, I have heard the director, Ana Lily Amirpour, compared to Tarantino and Jaramusch. The problem with comparisons and labels is that, oftentimes, they are attempts to fit something within a box. We seem to live in such a world that needs such comfy characterizations, that needs to function with these easily marked boxes, the better to fit into someones algorithm. “If you liked that then you will surely enjoy this. You bought that, how about shilling out for these?” All the more significant when something comes along that defies such tidy explanations and tedious comparisons. Ana Lily Amirpour’s debut, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, is such a work.
One of the reasons it resists classification is because this movie is a multitude, as can be gleaned from the disparate comparisons it invites. Plot wise there are at least three different movies contained within one. Usually this shows a lack of restraint on the part of the filmmaker, a tendency towards excess and messy final product. In this case Amirpour is in control, weaving all the strings together into something grander than each brilliant thread.
From the opening notes of the film you get a sense that something is going to be a bit off . Aresh, one of the main characters, grabs his cat from someone’s back yard and is walking back to his car. The opening music begins as the camera follows him down deserted streets. Although it is daytime, the only person he passes is a lone woman standing on a corner. As he begins to cross a bridge, the music slows down, like a cassette tape set to the lowest possible setting, and as the camera lingers on a ditch it becomes apparent that it is filled with bodies. The music is then replaced with the sound of flies. This body pit is never mentioned throughout the film, but its mere presence at the beginning, hovers and buzzes over over the rest of the film. It is seen a few times after the opening, a body is pushed tossed in, and later a dog emerges from it. Life is cheap in Bad City. Ostensibly a shadow version of Tehran, (although does Tehran really need a shadow version; what do you call the shadow of a shadow?), Bad City is a lawless ghost town. It is populated by drug dealers and addicts, prostitutes and pimps, beggar children, and the spoiled rich. And stalking all of them through the night is a nameless woman, played by Sheila Vand and credited as The Girl.
Not much of a city, the surroundings are made up of square, squat houses, thumping oil pumpjacks, billowing smoke stacks; industrial desolation. We get repeated shots of these as stand alone images, not tied to any of the characters, but looming, like the corpses, over everything. A comparison that I have not heard bandied about, is to that great chronicler of bourgeois malaise, Michelangelo Antonioni. His films are populated by such standalone images, and he uses them to highlight an emptiness, a lacking in the lives of his characters, of an entire class. They are not just a backdrop for the camera, but come to represent a backdrop for the very souls of the characters wandering around these wastelands. Here these images are put to a similar use, they represent a kind of death, but it is not a death of bourgeois ennui. The constantly pumping oil, the endless smoke, this is a kind of violence, a violence into which these characters are born, live and then die.
Violence is at the heart of this film, particularly violence against women. The Girl can be viewed as some kind of avenging angel, or perhaps avenging demon would be more accurate, I don’t remember any angels having fangs. She stalks these men who have ravaged this earth, these women. The Girl tells a prostitue she has been shadowing, “You don’t remember what you want. You don’t remember wanting and nothing ever changes.”
These women are told what to want, told what to do, what to be. For those lucky to be in the upper class they sedate themselves with drugs and are happy in their trance, in the lower class drugs are forced upon them and happiness escapes them entirely.
The violence, or justice depending on your view, The Girl metes out is sudden and jarring; this film contains some fine moments of horror. But, as mentioned previously, this is more than a horror movie, more than a very strange love story, this is the dawn of a new talent, and I cannot wait to see what Ana Lily Amirpour does next.