There are many drains on society, and Ana Lily Amirpour’s 2014 romantic horror film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night seeks to represent most of them in some way. The film’s titular vampire character seems to be un-monstrous within the narrative’s context, feeding off the ills of society instead of people; in other words, all that drains everyone else. This is expressed in a nightmarish, aesthetically-overpowering world filled with drug addiction, misogyny and pollution.
Dark, seductive camerawork that is intimate presents the moody, visually-deep streets of Bad City, a not-so-subtle name for the central location of this simultaneously understated and yet heavily-stylistic affair. This is a film an hour and thirty-six odd minutes in length that both takes its time in telling its story and yet never wastes a second. It’s over twenty-four minutes before the first act of vampirism is witnessed, and yet it seems far from the first: heroin is injected into feet; oil derricks suck the life from the crust of the Earth; a mass grave is silently observed within the opening shots; cars are stolen to cover a relative’s drug addiction; an aging prostitute is exploited. By the time actual fangs sink into someone, it is almost shocking in how non-shocking the sequence is, seeming mild by comparison to the far more real, far more palpable forms of devouring of life that we have seen so far.
Is any of this symbolism subtle? Not in the least, but it is shown rather than told – characters deliver no long-winded exposition on the vampiric nature of the oil industry, or the soul-stealing reality of opioid dealing. Instead, we are simply given the images, stark and unmistakable as they are, and are assumed smart enough to put two and two together. It pays off in almost every instance, a movie that, while seeming to have a lot on its mind, isn’t particularly interested in beating the audience to death with its message or themes.
The truth is, our ‘monster’ here seems less like an agent of evil, or of a chaotic nature, than she does a survivor in a desolate landscape in which the only other women we see seem to be lost in a fog of their own. They are either living detached physically in wealthy neighborhoods or detached emotionally as they earn their livings in the passenger seats of cars. All that is left for our protagonist to sink her teeth into is a series of vampires of their own making. When she confesses eventually to being “bad,” does she truly seem all that worse from the images we’ve been confronted with so far? When we do see her feed, it seems far from being as upsetting as the realistic ravages of addiction, exploitation and emptiness Amirpour shows us throughout.
You could remove every scene of actual blood-sucking and still have a film made up of disturbing, upsetting social commentary, a world full of sickness and disease eating itself alive, a factory-marred landscape reminiscent of a Lynchian nightmare sequence, a la Eraserhead. Depression, disaffection, social isolation – all of these themes are explored thoroughly as the film progresses. Ironically, when contrasted to these images our titular Girl seems among the least predatory of anyone: she seems less like a vampire than an outsider, detached and separated from the masses – masses of which we only get fragmentary glimpses. There are no real crowds, there is no real teaming pile of people – the closest we get to a large populace comes at a drug-fueled costume party in which our hero, Arash, sports a Dracula costume, mimicking our vampire unknowingly, and thus implicitly sharing the same sense of existence on the outskirts of humanity.
Lonely neighborhoods seem to be populated by houses with no one in them. Streetlamps light the way for nobody at all. What daylight we do see seems to attract no more life than the darkness of night does, and there is a hollowed-out, drained feeling to the entire world presented by Amirpour’s vision. It is clear, and it is stark, and it is chilling – empty, isolated, painfully lonely at times. So when the Girl and Arash do finally meet up, it seems less frightening and more fateful: two lost souls uniting, one wearing the image of the other’s reality, both sharing a midnight loneliness that the other feels just as potently.
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When Arash takes her in his arms and holds her for warmth after realizing how cold her hands are, it is almost painfully sweet – two characters, both in their own forms of isolation, united in an embrace coming from a place of pure affection after almost an entire fifty minutes spent illustrating societal exploitation. There’s a lack of fear, despite our awareness of what she is. It’s a beautiful moment, and one that remains somehow real, not transforming the film into some explosive and out-of-character romance but instead developing it into something believable, something sincere. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night earns its tenderness after showing us a world devoid of such affections. It’s as much a vampire film as it is a classic romance, and when we get to this sequence, we are so desperate for any glimmer of hope in Bad City that we simply accept it without doubt or question.
When our Girl places her head to Arash’s chest, she does not bite his vulnerable neck. Her costume is now retired and his left on. It’s a genuine, lovely sequence, one that does without dialogue what most “romantic” movies fail to do in an entire film. The audience is seduced by the film at this point as much as its characters are by each other. It is a moment of emotion that is true and honest, palpable and believable. In the end, when the two flee from Bad City together, it seems truly deserved, not Hollywood-perfect, and not overly-saccharine. It turns into a moment of true acceptance, of true recognition of somebody in a way that only sincerity can bring. Arash accepts our Girl, and so do we, in a scene of silent beauty that crescendos to a credits sequence driven by the soundtrack that, even when in a language we may not understand, we still “get.”
Amirpour proves that the vampire genre isn’t played out – it’s just not being approached from a fresh angle, and an Iranian vampire Western is about as fresh as anyone can imagine. It tells its story with vulnerability, earnest and beauty. It shows Amirpour has great talent as a director, a talent that seems to have found its style and voice well before we ever met it. She’s as capable at truly-eerie atmosphere and moments of detached horror as she is at sincere, heartfelt romance, carefully selecting excellent musical choices and selling us on a terrifyingly-nihilistic, empty world that many experienced filmmakers would struggle to make seem genuine, let alone believable.
With a heavy style and a charming oddness, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night could have quickly face-planted into just another self-indulgent, quirky indie film, but it avoids it completely, instead evoking the emotional palette of Let the Right One In. The film has been a favorite of mine since I first saw it, and I continue to love it to this day, still finding something intangibly wonderful in it. It is both lovely and spooky, gorgeous and dark all at once. These elements are intertwined, inseparable and, at times, indistinguishable from one another, just as they are so often are in life.