Or at least I think that’s how the saying goes. In the case of Ana Lily Amirpour’s Iranian vampire Western, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, the twain do not meet — but no bother. The film isn’t what it appears to be, and it isn’t what it threatens to be; it’s better.
It appears to be gimmicky; ignore that noise.
To start with some spoilers, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night isn’t Iranian. Much of the dialogue is spoken in Persian, true, and many of the actors are Iranian or of Persian descent as well. The fictitious Iranian town of Bad City may enclose all of the film’s locations, but Bad City sits squarely in California. So the film is Iranian in the same way the way The Lord of the Rings is elvish.
Did I ever tell you my wife’s middle name is elvish? It is. For reals. It’s a fact!
As to the Western angle, one might hear the one track in the score that clearly mimics Ennio Morricone’s lamenting trumpet from The Good the Bad and the Ugly, and notice the forces of good chaotically arrayed against those of a corrupting future, and then recall a Western or two. But a Western? No. It has no trappings of the Western genre — no sheriff (or sharif, which is Arabic, anyway), no six guns, no horses. The film’s themes are no more Western than Horror, or Romance.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night does have a vampire in it, however. And she does walk at night, occasionally alone. More often, she’s on someone’s trail. Or a skateboard.
So that’s what A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night isn’t. What it is: better.
It starts with a young man, Arash (Arash Marandi) lithely slipping between the boards of a building to retrieve a cat. He walks a bridge over a gully, and the gully is full of bodies. A boy asks him for money, but he has no money, only a classic car he has worked seven years to afford. Arash looks like a Persian James Dean in his tight denim and snug white t-shirt. Other characters, such as Saeed (Dominic Rains), appear seeped from the edges of Repo Man or Spring Breakers. They walk, alone and together, through the scantily populated streets of Bad City.
Most of the people who survive here behave as if they were in Iran, if Iran was in Repo Man, which it might be.
For as much as it’s worth, the plot of A Girl Walks follows Arash as he deals with his junkie father Hossein (Marshall Manesh), the predatory Saeed, the sad street-walker Atti (Mozhan Marno), the brazen Sheydah (Rome Shadanloo), and — thanks for waiting — a girl who is also a vampire (Sheila Vand). The girl preys on those who are bad in Bad City, all men. She wears a chador and dark, thick lipstick. She sways to ’80s torch songs beneath a poster of a younger, more dangerous Madonna.
She’s excellently creepy and lovely, both at once.
Critics have compared this haunting film to those of Jim Jarmusch, and in doing so they’re close to right. It isn’t that A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is like Jarmusch’s work, it’s that the film is as off-kilter and meandering as early Jarmusch; as dissociative and dreamy as early Lynch; as emotionally direct and narratively obtuse as early Herzog. Amirpour’s film is an inhalation of incense and narcotic. It’s an early-80s indie risen from the grave. It is not brilliant, but I suspect her next one may well be.
Amirpour stretches sense and wraps it around your medulla oblongata like some exotic parasite. Some scenes in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night are simply perfect, as when Arash finds, slowly, affection. Then again, other scenes are abrasive and odd. My attention drifted and then snapped to focus. My mind wandered, but within and not without.
Here is what I can say to you: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night isn’t very Hollywood. If you’re resigned to the sameness of cinema, this film is here to suggest, with a smile, that you can suck it.
It isn’t an Iranian vampire Western. It’s something else, something you haven’t yet seen. Something with jittery fingers, sharp teeth, and plenty of exposed neck.