For a while it looked like zombies would be the reigning pop culture creature of the night, what with the popularity of “The Walking Dead” on TV and “World War Z” on the big screen. Vampires, after all, had seen their moment in the moon but then the “Twilight” saga ended, “True Blood” was canceled and society, seemingly as a whole, decided the crawling undead were way sexier than batty bloodsuckers. But this year the vampire is having a comeback—not only is there Jim Jarmusch‘s groovy vampire romance “Only Lovers Left Alive,” but the wacky New Zealand mockumentary “What We Do In The Shadows” screened at SXSW (our review), and, now, the self described “first Iranian vampire western,” “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night,” which played Sundance and just screened as the opening night film for the Film Society of Lincoln Center and MoMA’s New Directors/New Films festival. The movie is charming and gorgeous and proof positive that vampires still have bite.
‘Girl…’ takes place in the fictional Bad City, a post-apocalyptic ditch of a town that’s supposed to be located somewhere in Iran but was actually filmed in some equally desolate patch of California. In Bad City almost everyone exists as some kind of lowlife, criminal, or fiend; one low rent neighborhood has a ravine that’s filled with dead bodies that no one seems to be attending to or be particularly curious about. Everything about Bad City seems, well, worse, and at the same time more sexy and dangerous, thanks to Lyle Vincent‘s crushingly gorgeous, elastically widescreen black-and-white cinematography. It’s pure neo-noir hell.
It’s in Bad City that we’re introduced to main character Arash (Arash Marandi), who, with his swept back hair, rumbling muscle car and propensity for wearing skin tight white T-shirts, feels like a fifties greaser elegantly transported to present day. Arash is a low-level scumbag, whose father, Hossein (Marshall Manesh) is a strung out junkie who injects some toxic concoction in between his toes and cries out for “his medicine.” Between the two of them, they owe a considerable amount of money to Saeed (Dominic Rains) a smalltime gangster who looks like Ninja from the South African rap band Die Antwoord, complete with a porn-y mustache and briar patch of neck tattoos (one says “SEX” while another is Pac Man gobbling up pixilated dots). Atti (Mozhan Marno) is an over-the-hill prostitute who works for Saeed and is constantly harassed by Hossein. Everyone in Bad City is related to everyone else, usually through criminal activity or seedy sexual encounters. As it should be.
And then there’s the titular girl (Sheila Vand), who, with her flowing black shawl and black-and-white striped T-shirt is like an adorable angel of death. She’s a vampire, although the particulars about her past are, like much of the movie, kept purposefully vague. Her basement apartment is decorated with posters for pop stars like Michael Jackson, so we made the assumption that she probably became allergic to sunlight sometime in the Reagan Era. At one point she steals a little kid’s skateboard and careens down the bombed-out streets of Bad City, the camera pushing into her billowing shawl like the end of “The Dark Knight.” She might not be the vampire we deserve, but she’s the one we need right now.
The girl and Arash eventually meet at a costume party where he is dressed as Dracula, and there is an immediate connection. They’re both outsiders, fundamentally fucked up people in a cultural landscape that is primarily evil, and sense the desperation within the other. It might not be romance, but it’s a start. And the two stars have a palpable chemistry. Vand only has a handful of lines in the entire movie, so she lets her body language and her giant, expressive eyes, do much of the talking. Marandi, on his part, is like some bygone heartthrob; like James Dean you’re not sure if he’s going to cry or punch somebody out in any given scene and that kind of unpredictability lends the movie a sparkly electricity. Like “Let the Right One In,” which is probably the movie’s closest equivalent both because of its off-kilter take on vampire lore and the fact that it’s in another language, the movie eventually becomes a romance centered around the question: How bad can someone be for you to still love them?
Writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour, who could have easily starred as the main character, is clearly inspired by comic books, with many of the scenes carrying a careful, graphic novel sense of composition. (Amirpour is also authoring a series of comic books that continue the story.) Each shot seems to be more beautiful than the last, with deep, dark blacks and blurry lens flares that were accomplished the old fashioned way: by shooting anamorphic. There is one sequence where the girl is stalking a potential victim by mirroring their every move from across the street. It’s a moment that exemplifies the movie as a whole—funny, scary, oddly sexy and deeply gorgeous.
Occasionally the film’s overwhelming emphasis on mood (over, say, character or narrative) and the somewhat deliberate pacing threaten to break its singularly intoxicating spell. But thankfully that never actually happens. Instead, the movie glides through, using wonderful visual shorthand to get across key information and reveal things about characters that dialogue or lengthy exposition would ultimately undo. The gender politics of the movie are, obviously, fascinating, ranking with “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” as one of the more feminist explorations of vampire mythology to grace popular culture. The girl isn’t the victim, she’s the vampire—and she’s not apologizing for it, either. (Somewhat more obtuse are the geopolitics of the movie; it’s littered with lingering, nearly-still shots of oil derricks. Because… oil is the blood of the world? And we’re all addicted? Or something?) Watching “A Girl Walks Home At Night,” you get the impression that you’re witnessing something iconic and important unfold before you. Mainstream success, even the minor kind that “Let the Right One In” achieved, might elude the movie, because it’s so damn weird. But for adventurous genre enthusiasts, it’ll be hard not to fall in love with this strikingly surreal ‘Girl.’ It’s a new vampire classic, one to treasure endlessly. [A-]