There is a confidence in Ana Lily Amirpour’s debut film, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night—notable for being the first Iranian Vampire-Western—, that defies what we have come to know of directorial confidence. While A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is not a technically spotless work, there is never a moment where the film isn’t fueled by a strong sense of the author’s signature. It solidifies the young director’s enthusiasm and drive; this is a work of love, of passion, of inspiration. It is a pastiche of cinematic and artistic influences, ranging across genre, medium, time, and culture, but it never loses sight of itself. While some may try, any attempt to try to undermine the film in light of its referents would seem futile. It may be a film woven from the thread of distinguishable spools, but the end result is a singular piece that could have only been the result of Amirpour’s vision.
A Girl Walks Alone at Night is set in the fictional, harrowing “Bad City, Iran,” a ghost town inhabited by the living dead. But for Amirpour’s film, the living dead are not the iconic monsters that horror has been accustomed to. No, in A Girl the ‘living dead’ are only dead in spirit. They are humans that have been deprived of their dreams, their hopes—humans that have been overlooked and exploited. Drugs, sex, violence medicate their sorrows and fill their voids. While A Girl may focus on conventionally undesirable characters, Amirpour’s often-bleak vision never dehumanizes, never reduces characters to crude stereotypes. The characters have depth, and leading the pact is the impressive Sheila Vand, whose performance is both chilling and tantalizing.
The film takes its cues from the cinema of the senses, avoiding a strong commitment to narrative development. At the heart of the film’s plot, lies the sentimental depiction of romance and lonesomeness. This is heralded not through dense dialogue or exposition, but rather propelled through the film’s visuals. The choice to shoot the film digitally was likely a budgetary concern, but it cannot be separated from its resulting effect. While the camera used, the Arri Alexa Studio, does handle black and white photography better than the average digital HD camera, there is an aspect of black and white digital imagery that is distinct. Digital b+w photography has a smoothness that gives the imagery an almost ethereal characteristic. As can be assumed, this aspect is entirely fitting for A Girl and gives credence to Amirpour’s creation. In addition, it would seem as many of the sequences were shot “day for night”—where an image is shot in daylight and manipulated to look like night. While this technique is often distracting when noticeable, in A Girl it further develops the otherworldly nature of the film’s fictional reality. The streets are cast with an even fill of light, leaving the inclusion of shadows to appear intentionally staged. It is fantasy, but it is never far from reality. Humorously, this has already been a source of complaint amongst viewers, the question of, “why Amirpour chose to shoot the film in Southern California but set it in Iran?’ As if somehow the film would be more ‘authentic’ had she done so. Even so, authenticity is not what the film is going for. If the aforementioned creation of a fantastical world of faux-reality is not convincing perhaps Amirpour’s own humorous, succinct retort will suffice:
While the film feels very politically motivated, Amirpour’s commentary is not explicit, nor is it didactic. She doesn’t beat you over the head with any ideology, but neither does the film ever escape into a removed fantasy. Politically speaking, the film leaves a significant fissure between intentionality and distinctiveness. Rather than reduce complicated issues to simple answers, the complexity to the film’s ideology is a representation of the complexity of the real world problems that the film adopts. For example, prostitution is neither glorified nor is it chastised. A Girl presents the dangers that sex workers are subject to without passing any judgment on sex workers themselves.
If there is any one aspect to the film that will polarize audiences, it may be Amirpour’s—for lack of a better word—“hipness;” as evident in Indiewire’s recent article, where she is proclaimed to be the “raddest” new filmmaker. It comes as little surprise to hear that, in addition to Kino Lorber, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is distributed through Vice. While there is a sense of timelessness to the film, there is also a strong connection with contemporary audiences often ignored by the horror community. In spite of the aggressively assured outcry that “hipsters” have invaded Horror, the evidence of such an invasion has been rather nonexistent. To be honest, this line of criticism is boring. If you line up all of the directors that have been labeled “hipster” by the anonymous masses, you’ll find little to compare between the bunch. The term hipster, itself, has lost any significance, if it ever really had any to begin with. It is a blanket term, applied liberally to any aspect of culture that people deem ‘fake’ and/or ‘too hip’—but when pressed on explaining their reasons often fall short of convincing. As, already a Google search of the film’s title plus “hipster” yields over 270,000 results of wavering intentions, lets just succumb to criticism. They’ve won. A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is “hipster horror.” But, what does that mean? Absolutely nothing. If you are so narrow minded that you can’t accept a film because it adheres to a subculture (a hypothetical one at that) that you don’t subscribe to, there is no point trying to convince you otherwise. If you don’t adopt those prejudices and you are willing to commit yourself to a sensorial cinematic experience, you might just find A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night to be one of 2014’s most impressive debuts.