Where to begin? Well, it bills itself as the “first Iranian Vampire Western,” which is certainly odd enough, but there’s a catch — actually, there are several catches. First of all, it’s not really much of a Western. Then, while A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night — the debut feature of British-born Iranian-American Ana Lily Amirpour — is in Persian (with subtitles) and takes place in the fictitious Bad City, Iran, it’s actually a U.S. film with Taft, Calif., standing in for Bad City. There’s more.
Bad City is depicted as existing in some kind of isolated realm and in a very dislocated time. If there is a world outside of Bad City, it’s as ephemeral — and probably as inaccessible — as whatever exists beyond the town in Michele Soavi’s Cemetery Man (1994). What we see consists of largely deserted urban streets, equally empty suburbs, an oil refinery — and a never-explained ravine piled with corpses. The only car we see in the entire film is one of those first-generation (the ones with the porthole window) Thunderbirds. It and the endless proliferation of small pumpjack oil derricks — commonly seen in 1950s California-set sci-fi horror movies — give the movie a distinctly retro vibe. At the same time, drug-dealing villain Saeed (Dominic Rains) is of the modern world, and people do have cellphones.
Stylistically, it’s a mongrel. It resembles everyhing from 1950s horror to the French New Wave to early Jim Jarmusch — and all points in between. Supposedly, the whole idea came to Amirpour when she was wearing a chador and decided it made her look like a bat. That certainly is expressed by the film’s nameless vampire (Sheila Vand) — an inky figure who prowls the streets of Bad City (sometimes on a skateboard she appropriates from Milad Eghbali’s Street Urchin) as much for ferreting out and punishing evil as in search for food. She is an observer. She’s also not quite the figure she represents — underneath the chador she has short hair and wears a striped shirt, resembling an Eastern version of Jean Seberg in Godard’s Breathless (1960). For that matter, the young man she maybe falls in love with (Arash Marandi) is like a cross between Jean-Paul Belmondo in that film and James Dean — Iranian style.
You will note, I imagine, that I haven’t mentioned a plot. There is one — involving a drug dealer, the vampire, the young man, the street urchin, the young man’s drug-addict father, an aging prostitute and a cat — but the film is only marginally interested in it. This is more about the feelings that the film’s images evoke — and that probably sounds more boring than it is. That’s not to say that the film is fast-paced. It isn’t. It’s in no hurry, and it doesn’t balk at stopping for sequences that have little to do with advancing the plot. This, of course, has been catnip to the bulk of the critical populace. But if you’re in search of horror action, this probably isn’t for you. While there are a few outright horror scenes, the mood is more one of dread — both specific and nonspecific.
Am I calling A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night a great movie? No. After two viewings (I liked it more the second time), I still find it overpraised. People — by which I mean critics — seem to lose all sense of perspective when a movie is in black and white. I’d say that about 25 percent of it is actually visually striking. The rest is just in black and white. There’s too much hand-held camerawork in the film’s opening scenes. For some reason, this settles down before too long. Some scenes are uneven. Others just go on too long. A few are merely awkwardly jammed in to advance the story. It’s often at its best when it’s off on a moody tangent. But it has something and is well worth seeing, especially if you’re a horror fan or a fan of art cinema. Not Rated, but contains scenes of horror violence, adult themes and drug use.