Few films that have appeared on the 2015 UK release sheet have piqued my interest as much as Ana Lily Amirpour’s deliciously mysterious A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night. First of all in and of itself is that title, which is filled with potential threat while also being guilelessly matter-of-fact. Then there’s the rough sell of what it is; an Iranian vampire movie, based on Amirpour’s own graphic novel of the same name, produced by – among others – Elijah Wood, and shot in monochrome in California. It makes that title seem even more flirtatious; though it flatly explains something, something else is being left out of the telling.
Bolster that with a bit of internet buzz, a tellingly retro poster campaign, a cracking trailer and a soundtrack that recalls the nostalgic cherry-picking of Quentin Tarantino and you’ve got a mini-sensation waiting to happen. Something with instant cult classic written all over it.
In reality that turns out to be about half-right. Amipour’s film is slightly let down by its own commendable ability to build mystique. Don’t get me wrong, the film is frequently beguiling and captivating (largely whenever Sheila Vand’s titular Girl is on screen), but the film suffers slightly because the idea of it is little bit more interesting than the actual viewing of it.
Meet Arash (Arash Marandi). Local pimp and pusher Saeed (Dominic Rains) has just taken his car as part-payment when his gambling, heroin addicted father Hossein (Marshall Manesh) proves unable to cover the cost of his vices. Having stolen some earrings to trade with Saeed to secure his car back, Arash finds the pimp brutally murdered. At the scene he finds a large case of drugs and money. Arash takes the case, half-heartedly attempting to reinvent himself as Saeed’s successor pushing pills at a costume party. Falling foul of ‘getting high on your own supply’, Arash encounters the Girl out in the suburbs. She finds him curious (she finds many things curious), and takes him under her wing. From here a tentative, muted romance conjures between two lost souls in the thick black nights of nowheresville Bad City.
What I’ve described already covers over half the movie, albeit leaving out a lot of its most charming elements which occur when we’re left to watch the Girl as she wanders the city alone, threatening a child, acquiring a skateboard (a wonderful addition to her iconic look), or causing Saeed’s grim demise. The narrative is daringly thin, but that seems to suit Amirpour’s needs just fine, as AGWHAAN is as much a celebration of stylish cinematic trappings as it is enamoured with tweaking elements of vampire mythology. Riding the skateboard with her open hijab billowing in the wind like a cape, the Girl mixes childlike play with the more dangerous bat iconography of vampire folklore. This mix of the sweet and the sinister repeatedly defines her actions; one of the films highlights sees her mirroring a stranger’s movements across a road, letting the viewer wonder if or when she will pounce.
Vand plays the near wordless lead turn with a beguiling ability to romance the camera, more than enough to make her Girl a modern cult icon. The same cannot quite be said for Amirpour yet, as AGWHAAN can’t help but suffer somewhat from its featherweight characters and lack of momentum. Superior music choices can go a long way to heightening the power of a scene, and Amirpour has a very good ear for what’s liable to do this, yet her scenes are often somewhat inert, stages on which characters move with soporific slowness presumably intended to make their eventual actions carry weight, though the effect lands as often as it doesn’t. This push for style over substance causes a number of the film’s characters to appear as mere shadow puppets for Amirpour to rearrange into different combinations. There’s little depth, in short, and it makes building an emotional connection something of a challenge.
So while the cautious romance between Arash and the Girl is vaguely endearing, it’s far from compelling. The relaxed pacing (not something I’m ordinarily bothered by in the least) comes close to simply dawdling, as Amirpour waits for the audience to pretty much request development before handing them the next piece of the story. Seldom does this swerve away from expectation either. For all its style, AGWHAAN takes so many of its cues and shots from the grab-bag of cinematic history (be it the horror movie, the Western or the jewelry box of 60’s French New Wave) that little manages to feel new or innovative, aside from, presumably, an intentionally cavalier attitude to keeping things in focus. It would appear amateurish if the intent wasn’t so scrupulously controlled elsewhere.
Nevertheless, there is a lot to love here, and a lot to immerse yourself in if it’s simple aesthetic pleasures that you want. A number of times I was reminded of the work of David Lynch (a blend particularly of shots and sounds from Eraserhead and Lost Highway), while there’s a European sensibility to the louche interactions between the characters. Bad City itself is that classic staple of modern fantasy; a sprawling metropolis with no law at all (bodies are dumped unceremoniously in a river basin to the shock or surprise of no one). But above all its the Girl who takes the movie, helps it to soar beyond its limitations. AGWHAAN may conspicuously reveal its hollowness in her absence, but there’s enough here to ensure both Vand and Amirpour are women to watch over the coming years. What, at the time, feels anticlimactic becomes a more pleasurable experience when reflected upon.
Something key may have been left out of the story, for sure, but there’s more than enough here to make me want to go back for more and remain hopeful for the future.