When Only Lovers Left Alive came out in April 2014, cinephiles got to find out exactly what a Jim Jarmusch vampire movie looks like right now: an idyll of sumptuous textures, sedentary debauchery, and angst. Now, thanks to Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, cinephiles can also find out what a Jim Jarmusch vampire movie would have looked like back in 1985, somewhere between Stranger Than Paradise and Down By Law. There’s still plenty of angst, but of a hipper, younger flavor: less “I’ve seen it all, and man, it’s all the same” weariness, more banked youthful energy with nowhere to go.
Jarmusch isn’t the only inspiration Amirpour drew on for her debut feature, and her fictional small-town Iranian setting does take the story somewhat outside Jarmusch’s usual American metropolises. (Though not far outside: Girl Walks Home was filmed in Taft, California.) But the film’s sharp black-and-white cinematography, brooding rock soundtrack, and embrace of James Dean-era cool recalls Jarmusch so clearly that it feels like Tom Waits might stroll by in the background at any moment to tip a melancholy wink to the audience. The women wear chadors and the rock is largely in Farsi, apart from a critically moody scene dominated by White Lies’ neo-new-wave track “Death.” But the story doesn’t feel like it’s taking place in Iran, so much as in a Platonic ideal of the 1950s, in any small desert town where the jeans are battered, cigarettes dangle idly from slack mouths, a 1957 Ford Thunderbird is the epitome of style, and doe-eyed aimless frustration is the order of the day.
Girl Walks Home is set in the backwater Iranian oil town of Bad City, a place so tiny that it only seems to rate one gangster. Tattooed thug Saeed (Dominic Rains) never seems to be in a hurry, but he keeps busy abusing streetwalker Atti (Mozahn Marnò) and supplying coke and heroin to the locals, including aging junkie Hossein (Marshall Manesh). There are perks, like shaking down Hossein’s soulful son Arash (Arash Marandi) for his beautiful vintage car to pay off Hossein’s drug debts. And there are downsides, like attracting the attention of an unnamed dark-eyed vampire (Argo’s Sheila Vand, credited solely as The Girl) who lurks deep in the back of Amirpour’s compositions, watching and waiting, and preying on those who cross her moral boundaries.
The Girl never specifies those boundaries—A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night isn’t interested in declamatory statements of purpose. Amirpour is more concerned with creating memorable tableaux, which her characters often drift around like kelp in deep water. Her film is steeped in slow, sleepy kinesthetics: When The Girl invites Arash into her apartment, they move around each other glacially, as if they’re trying out a new dance in slow motion. When Saeed brings The Girl into his pimped-out pad, he walks off and ignores her for a while, giving her room to investigate his swag and be properly impressed, but she simply stands and patiently waits for his next move. Where people stand in what relation to each other, and whether they dare look each other in the eyes: Amirpour makes these things more important than what they actually say.
The tagline on Girl Walks Home styles it as a “feminist Iranian vampire Western,” which feels more like the quirkiest of elevator pitches than like a true summary: The film is feminist in the sense that The Girl preys on men who prey on women, and a Western in the sense that it takes place in a cowboy realm of harsh landscapes, broody men, and patient ladies. But it still feels more like an elegant exercise in era-specific style. Amirpour has said she was inspired in part by the way wearing a chador made her feel like a bat, and that mental image becomes clear in a moment where The Girl leaps, and looks both like she’s spreading her wings and like she’s wearing a superhero’s cape. But apart from the head-coverings and the language Amirpour’s characters speak, there’s little to tie the story to any one time or place.
For that matter, there’s little to tie it to anything, except other movies. The Girl’s heavily lined eyes, dark hair, and preternatural stillness strongly recall Lina Leandersson in the similarly chilly vampire love story Let The Right One In. The the film’s spare-but-layered sound design is reminiscent of Eraserhead, and its haunted, dreamy 1950s quality otherwise evokes David Lynch, when it isn’t calling on Jarmusch. It feels like a film made by a cinephile, rather than a film made for political or social commentary. (Interviews with Amirpour strongly reflect this attitude; given Iran’s repressive attitude toward women, there have been attempts to type the film as political commentary, but the writer-director comes across as somewhere between resistant to and apathetic about the interpretation.)
That lack of solidity, and the dreamy pacing, can make A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night feel stylish but empty, and at times narratively inert. The black-and-white cinematography is harsh and striking, but the actors’ expressive faces often get lost in the blacks. And scenes stretch out past the point where new information is being conveyed, or even implied: The film sometimes seems to get lost in self-admiration and its own melancholy mood.
Still, Amirpour maintains that mood exquisitely well, filling the screen with big, obvious symbols—a power plant steaming industriously away, a train wandering across the image, The Girl turning the small window of her chador away from the camera so she disappears into shadow—that play on her audience’s nerves as well as their sense of familiarity. The story could use some momentum and energy to go with its gorgeously effective posturing, and more ideas as compelling as the image of The Girl descending on a victim, chador billowing behind her. But as with Jarmusch’s films, it presents a stylish place to be stuck. If it lingers too long in its strange, still moments, it at least makes them look terrific on the screen.