An offbeat supernatural romance with no scares but a beating, undead heart, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is derivative yet compelling. It’s shot in black-and-white, reeking of the 1980s and mirroring the deadpan hipster mood of Jim Jarmusch films from that time.
It has a shaggy-dog — well, cat, anyway — vibe from the start as the young male lead, Arash (Arash Marandi) rescues a stray feline and takes it home with him. To get there, he has to walk past desolate buildings and chugging oil derricks, a regular background feature in Southern California. That’s where the movie was shot, but it’s filmed in the Farsi language; the location is never specified.
Writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour is creating an intentional cultural dislocation. The characters speak Persian, yes. And the female lead wears a chador. But the chador only serves as a low-key visual effect: when our heroine moves, she’s like a gliding column of shadow or smoke. Oh, and she’s a vampire.
Known only in credits as The Girl (the expressively large-eyed Sheila Vand), she drifts into the problem-plagued life of Arash. His father Hossein (Marshall Manesh) is a heroin addict deep in debt to the local tattooed drug dealer, Saeed (Dominic Rains), who takes in-kind restitution by driving off in Arash’s beloved vintage convertible. Saeed is also a pimp, who humiliates and manhandles an aging whore named Atti (Mozhan Marnò). He’s trouble.
And he doesn’t have long for this world. The Girl proves to be a feminist angel of the night, a dark avenger targeting wrongdoers (especially those who mistreat women). It’s a nice corrective to the swoony-damsel view of women prevalent in those Twilight flicks.
The implicit feminist angle also works beautifully, ironically, with the chador The Girl wears, often seem as an emblem of imposed female subjugation. (She sometimes also sports a striped blouse, and wears her hair uncovered, looking very much like the sort of retro, mid-20th-century girl who would look perfect in Arash’s car.)
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is no groundbreaker. It’s too slight, too infatuated with its own mood, a lot of it borrowed and stitched together from other movies. Jarmusch himself made a vampire flick recently, Only Lovers Left Alive, a semisuffocating immersion in hipster attitude sold by Tilda Swinton’s charisma. Girl also recalls the black-and-white, female-vampire indy Nadja from 1994, and its star-crossed romance tips a hat to Sweden’s resonant, melancholy Let the Right One In.
In the movie’s final minutes, Arash and The Girl spend a moment staring silently at each other. The young man has to make a decision. The scene is a distant cousin of that moment in Huckleberry Finn, when Huck knows all the facts about Jim’s place in their antebellum world, and decides, “All right then, I’ll go to hell.” The moment is brief and, like most of the film, understated almost to the point of stasis. But it takes us the closest the movie can come to a happy ending.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. With Arash Mirandi, Sheila Vand. Written and directed by Ana Lily Amirpour. In Farsi with subtitles. Unrated. 100 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.