Review first published by Grolsch FilmWorks Developed from Ana Lily Amirpour’s 2011 short film of the same name, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is a modern fairytale, its allegorical tendencies underlined by the many disguises that it adopts.
Arash (Arash Marandi) may be a citizen of ‘Bad City’, somewhere in Iran, but his jeans and white T-shirt, coupled with DP Lyle Vincent’s aloof monochrome camerawork, make him seem like the hero of an early, America-set Jarmusch film. It helps that Taft, California (where the film was shot) is doubling for Bad City, with only the occasional street sign in Perso-Arabic script, or the fact that everyone is speaking Farsi, to mark this ghost town as Iranian. This is important: if A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night had a western, rather than Middle Eastern setting, its title might at best imply the girl’s vulnerability; but in the Iranian setting, where women’s conduct is closely monitored and controlled by both tradition and the State, a girl ‘alone’ is a girl unchaperoned, which in a street at night suggests impropriety. This film, with its prostitution, nudity, drug-taking and monstrous female rebellion against patriarchy, is unlikely to be screening any time soon in Iran.
Here patriarchy is embodied by Arash’s father Hossein (Marshall Manesh), a feckless, appetitive junkie who blames all his problems on his late wife, and makes use of local prostitute Atti (Mozhan Marnò) whenever he has the cash. Hard-working, decent Arash has inherited Hossein’s endless debts to the tattooed dealer/pimp Saeed (Dominic Rains), to whom Atti has effectively become enslaved. Saeed too, all hilarious hypermasculinity and swaggering entitlement, is another embodiment of the status quo.
The catalyst for change comes in the form of the Girl (Sheila Vand), a nocturnal creature who beneath her black chadoor conceals the same striped shirt – and the same love of dancing – as Elina Löwensohn’s character in Simple Men (1994), which is, significantly, also a tale of complex women and their less complex male counterparts. The Girl is, incidentally, a vampire too, using her retractable fangs to bite off the odd phallus-associated finger and to bring a violent end to male misbehaviour. In one scene she confronts a young boy in the street and warns him to be a “good boy” or face her terrible wrath. She is the matriarchal flipside of this town’s oppressive order.
Bad City is a place of stasis and decay, with its oil fields and electricity plants, its wrecked cars, dilapidated buildings and a ditch (inexplicably) full of corpses. Change and self-transformation do seem possible here, whether figured by the rhinoplasty that free-spirited, independent Shaydah (Rome Shadanloo) has undergone, or by the things that Arash opportunistically steals to improve his lot in life, or by the (horror-themed) fancy-dress costumes that Arash, Shaydah and others wear at a party (Arash as Dracula), or by the drugs that characters take as a form of escapism. Yet much as Hossein has become a prisoner to his own addictions, and haunted by his memories of the dead, we are left to wonder whether, as Arash and the Girl finally hit the road in their own bid to escape, with the cat in tow that Hossein believed was the watchful spirit of Arash’s mother, they might just be bringing all the old, unresolved problems along with them, and might never be able fully to leave behind their own urges, compulsions and hungers. Perhaps this couple represent new hope for Iran, but the future dimly illuminated by their car’s headlights hardly seems certain.
So A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is a strange, hipsterish love story with neo-Gothic underpinnings, too downbeat to be simply funny, and too cool (the skateboarding undead!) to be scary, but certainly singular. Perhaps it loses its pace somewhat by the end, but there is no other Western/Middle-Eastern feminist horror hybrid quite like it.