Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a curious creature. Yes, any film described as “the first Iranian vampire Spaghetti Western” is strange enough, leaves little room for comparison and will have various sprawling elements, but oddly enough, there is still a succinct image that can be drawn from such a hook. And yet, Amirpour’s film manages to defy even that expectation, simultaneously challenging tropes and keeping the viewer engaged. With this film, the picture she paints is faintly fantastical, effortlessly cool and most importantly, quite close to home.
We’re first drawn in by the image of one of our protagonists, Arash (Arash Marandi), standing casually outside a fence. With a wardrobe like denim jeans, aviators and a slim-fitting white t-shirt with its sleeves slightly rolled up, it’s hard not to draw similarities to the likes of James Dean, and thus popular depictions of naturally confident masculinity – the slick hair and classic convertible are only added details that confirm our suspicions. Amidst the desolate setting, and with this picture in mind – as well as his stealing a cat – he quickly becomes the outlaw type convention craves, and Amirpour begins to establish the prevailing tone.
Aided by the decision of being in black and white, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night can’t help but feel bleak, which is hardly a familiar feeling for a Western of any breed. The outcome might not always be positive in these films – just consider the many bloodbaths that have marked their concluding scenes – but the presence of a strong protagonist would often be enough to keep hope alive. Instead, despite the strengths of Arash and The Girl (Sheila Vand), the atmosphere is often relentlessly moody and overbearing, without regressing into something too cynical. While this is partially due to some solid music choices that underline each scene, the varied characters are the primary perpetrators.
The number of people populating each scene is minimal, but each serves a clear purpose to the narrative, specifically to do with the script’s strong feminist overtones, calling into question the hyper-masculinity of Western characters and attitudes. The Girl is very obviously a representation of feminism standing amidst the barren wasteland traditional norms has created, and she walks and stalks the night as though she is policing the streets, detecting abusive male entitlement wherever it occurs.
Rather than being the typically lawless kind his first appearance on screen projects him as, Arash is hardly what his image suggests, being the only male character The Girl detects any good in, yet certainly having his own issues with privilege – which the film curiously doesn’t seem too interested in addressing. His father Hossein (Marshall Manesh), a drug addict, fittingly signifies the stubborn resistance to change characterizing his generation, while characters like Saeed (Dominic Rains) and Atti (Mozhan Marnò) are the poster child for chauvinists everywhere and a direct casualty of patriarchal modes of thought, respectively.
Not only is this progressive stance entwined through the story with a rebellious swagger, but also it seems a perfect means to embrace a subversion of both the vampire and Western genres, especially when it comes to acknowledging the implicit sexuality that is a common theme with the blood sucking undead. Except the sexiness isn’t sexualized, but rather a means of empowerment. Additionally, Amirpour’s script is quite adept at switching between such a defiantly punk ethos and a simultaneous admiration and subversion of the genres it emulates, making the portrayal of its message a far cry from sanctimonious and its method of self-reflexivity accessible.
With any description like “the first Iranian vampire Spaghetti Western,” it’s tempting to disregard A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night as a gimmick. Its brooding, melancholy approach, however, is exactly the appeal that brings viewers to either Westerns or vampire flicks, all the while fusing both to create its own vision. In a way, Amirpour’s film is a reclamation; a victory for both progressive gender politics and the vitality of two admittedly stale genres, at least to modern tastes. If this is any indication, Amirpour’s future is nothing but bright.