From the title of this Sundance-selected horror/thriller you might suspect you can know the premise. "A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night" seems the setup for so many terrifying tales of violation, violence, and murder. But usually, "the girl" is the subject of these things, not their executioner. The feature directorial debut of Ana Lily Amirpour turns audience expectation on its head from the first frame of its titular anti-heroine, who projects an eerie intimidation in her pitch-black, floor-length hijab paired with blood-red lips. She's menacing, and instantly mesmerizing, as is the film named for her.
Billed as "the first Iranian vampire Western," the film follows the desperate inhabitants of the fictional Iranian ghost town Bad City. There's Arash (Arash Marandi), a beautiful young man with a good heart, a cool car, a pained expression and the swagger of James Dean. His no-good junkie father (Marshall Manesh) gets them on the wrong side of an unpredictable pimp (Dominic Rains), who cloaks himself in hideous tattoos and gaudy jewelry to prove his badass status. There's a melancholy prostitute (Mozhan Marno), and a young street urchin (Milad Eghbali) groping for change. And then there's The Girl (Sheila Vand in a role that should make her iconic).
While her neighbors struggle to make a living and survive in the grim world of Bad City, The Girl thrives. On the streets, she is a creature who is alluring, but dangerous. She dares to be cloaked and confident where she it seems she should be easily frightened by the vicious men who stalk the streets at night. The Girl rides a skateboard down dark, abandoned streets, casually hunting for prey. But she is not a merciless monster. And before long she dares to show her soft side--dancing in a way reminiscent of the breathless girls of the French New Wave--to that handsome Arash.
Nothing you know about vampire movies will help you predict the path A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night will carve. In some instances, it feels like a 1950s drama, earnest and emotional. Sometimes it buzzes with art house-style horror, as The Girl makes a meal out of one of Bad City's worst residents. Urban streets vacant but for a few fringe folk evoke Western, grim and haunting. But also there are moments of heart-lifting levity, as The Girl spins in her secret sanctuary, or revels in her dark powers. Basically, it's an unapologetic pastiche of the works of Sergio Leone, David Lynch, F.W. Murnau, and Jean-Luc Godard. With all these seemingly conflicting influences and changes in tone, it shouldn't work. And yet it does, creating something referential, yet fresh and fascinating.
Shot in a crisp black and white, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night has an instantly otherworldly quality to it. Characters crash into each other's paths as the plot ambles along. And there's a dream-like quality, enhanced by Amirpour's smooth soundtrack that makes its strange shifts feel smooth. Its cast is spot-on, though Vand stands out with her easy elegance, slinky physicality, and chilling silences. All this makes for a seductive journey that defies convention, and culminates in a bittersweet finale that is satisfying and earned.
Ultimately, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is a collision of influences that blend into a surreal thriller that is sometimes creepy, sometimes sweet, but consistently spellbinding. It's impossibly cool, and deserves to be sought out.