Iranian-American director Ana Lily Amirpour likes to describe her projects in “X meets Y” terms. “It’s Road Warrior meets Pretty in Pink with a dope soundtrack”, she has said of her upcoming English-language debut, before conjuring up yet another pairing of genre movie and 80s pop culture darling in another interview: The Bad Batch, as the film is set to be called, will be like “El topo meets Dirty Dancing“. While such tongue-in-cheek referentiality is certainly very timely and cannily evocative in a Tarantino sort of way, it does seem like an odd self-promotion strategy for a relative newcomer like the England-born Amirpour, as it suggests a rather limited frame of dicussion for a director’s work.
Of course, in a cultural era marked by rampant intertextuality and knowing pastiche, such an approach is nothing if not honest, but it does create an unfortunate sense of not being able to talk about a work on its own terms. It would be easy, and by no means inaccurate, to sum up the essence of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Amirpour’s debut feature, as “Under the Skin meets Only Lovers Left Alive with a dash of Tarantino pulp”, but that wouldn’t do justice to the film’s boisterously stylish artistic self-assurance.
As far as plot is concerned, Girl doesn’t overexert itself, nor does it have to. Set in an Iranian ghost town named Bad City – and filmed in Taft, California –, where ghostly oil drilling machinery riddles the outskirts and scores of bodies are dumped into roadside ditches, it revolves around the intertwining fates of Arash (Arash Marandi), a young man struggling to accommodate his drug addict father (Marshall Manesh) and to stave off an intrusive dealer (Dominic Rains), and an unnamed female vampire (Sheila Vand) who prowls the streets of Bad City at night, dressed in a hijab, in search of prey.
First and foremost, the film works as a beguiling mood piece. Helped considerably by Lyle Vincent’s gothic black-and-white cinematography, it manages to capture a faint yet pervasive feeling of impending doom, which does not necessarily follow from the story line. Rows of slightly derelict suburban bungalows, shot just out of focus, seem to have a strangely uncanny air about them; the image of Sheila Vand slowly cruising through the virtually abandoned town is one of apocalyptic romanticism.
This, along with the vampire’s penchant for playing capital-C Cool music on vinyl records, is the strongest link between A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and Jim Jarmusch’s beautiful bloodsucker elegy Only Lovers Left Alive. It doesn’t seem like a similiarity that is entirely unintentional on the part of Amirpour, as her quasi-heroine’s vampirism appears to function along the same lines as the one practiced by Tom Hiddleston’s Adam and Tilda Swinton’s Eve. It is in comparison, however, that Girl suffers: in spite of the venerable turns by Vand and Arash Marandi, their characters never come close to reaching the same depth, the same weary likeability Jarmusch’s monstrous ur-hipsters exuded. They remain, due in part also to the at times Under the Skin-esque waiving of articulate dialogue, quite flat figures to be looked at rather than into, to be seen rather than empathised with.
Ultimately, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night can be classified as an intriguing exercise in style carrying all the markings of an ambitious newcomer. Form rules over substance; there is an abundance of shots that clearly exist merely for their own sake; the overarching theme in terms of style is eclectic hybridity of culture (the American West meets the Middle East), genre (western meets horror), and even music (folk meets electronica meets rock). Amirpour’s debut is one that works in fits – the atmosphere and the element of classic horror being its standout features – and that is indicative of a directorial talent that has yet to come to fruition. But at a point in her career at which any kind of pigeonholing is hopelessly premature and irksomely confining, Amirpour is already being touted as “the new Tarantino”. May she rise above that unfortunate epithet.
For more reviews (in German), visit www.facingthebittertruth.com.