Recently, I was lucky enough to attend a screening of the stunning film A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, the debut feature film from Ana Lily Amirpour, an Iranian-American director, screenwriter, producer, and actor. I’d been hearing a ton of buzz about this movie, but couldn’t a screening in my city. My town isn’t exactly a big stop on the indie film circuit, so it took a long time before a screening was finally scheduled and I could scoop up some tickets.
I was not disappointed. This film is, quite simply, amazing. I really enjoyed it.
I am a huge fan of vampire movies, and let me just say that it delivered on everything I require in vampire flick—brooding atmospheres, iconic shots, striking fashion, the right amount of blood (copious amounts must be effectively used), and a hypnotic vampire. It was a slow burn type of movie, very pensive. I thought it was well acted, solidly written, and stylishly shot. It was also kin of weird, but in an intriguing way.
But the film was also very different than what I expected. Which is good.
Some plot first (spoilers ahead).
The film revolves around the poor souls who inhabit Bad City, a god-forsaken place with elements of both Iran and America woven together. The street signs are in Persian, but the suburban settings might be from Any Town, USA. Smoke stacks spew clouds of black pollution into the sky. Countless oil derricks pump tirelessly in the background. Everything in the town is dirty and dark, while the surrounding desert is sterile and bright.
Against this setting, the city’s inhabitants struggle to find happiness and fulfillment in their daily lives. There’s Arash, the “Iranian James Dean” who has supports his junkie father and whose one joy in life is his slick vintage sports car. Hossein, Arash’s father, is a drug addict and an albatross around Arash’s neck. There’s Saeed, Hossein’s dealer and a pimp, a man both threatening and pathetic. There’s Atti, a prostitute forced into demeaning encounters with both Saeed and Hossein, and who secretly hopes to leave Bad City one day. There’s the Street Urchin, a cherubic child who wanders the streets of Bad City and witnesses far more than he should.
And then, of course, there is the Girl. The vampire. The monster.
Played with intensity, tension, and honesty by Sheila Vand, the Girl is a beautiful creature who spends her evenings listening to electro-pop before she lines her eyes with black eyeliner, dons her black chador, and prowls for fresh blood. She is beautiful and scary. She can be ruthless and violent one minute, cool and relaxed the next, gliding through the streets on a skateboard, her chador stretched out like wings behind her.
There is much I could explore about this film (such as the wonderfully rendered love story between Arash and the Girl), but the thing that has stuck me was how the film treats the Girl as a character, as a monster.
Traditionally, the point of the monster in a story is to give a face and a name to all those unconscious fears we humans carry around. If it can be personified and identified, then it can be easily defeated. A monster serves as a symbol of insecurity, evil, something to overcome. Monsters exist outside of our safe human civilization. If you break our laws and rules, you will be punished. Monsters exist in many stories in order to be punished, to be defeated and reaffirm adherence to the rules.
A monster is usually presented as a perversion of the human form, as a way to communicate its separateness and isolation from human society. Obviously they come in different varieties, some of which lend themselves better to some stories than others. Werewolves represent a devolvement from rational civilization into animal depravity. Zombies reflect how dependent we are on society’s delicate structure. Vampires expose fears about losing ourselves to sex and addiction and death, the most dangerous and enticing aspects of being human.
I’d heard a lot about what the film was, all attention-grabbing brands like Iranian western film, horror film, Iranian western-horror film, and feminist vampire film. On and on. Thankfully I avoided many of the reviews, so walking into the screening, I was unsure of how to anticipate the treatment of a vampire in this film.
This worked in my favor, since I realized that the Girl is not treated like a traditional monster. She does not need to be defeated or punished. If anything, she is the film’s moral authority.
Bad City and all of its inhabitants already exist outside of any recognizable, “legitimate” society. For an example, on the outskirts of the city lies a ditch full of dead bodies. Everybody seems to be aware of the ditch, but no one cares. A seedy underworld of drugs, prostitution, and poverty plague the city, but the vapid upper class turns the other way, too focused on trite parties and designer drugs. Bad things happen to everyone in Bad City. The whole city is resigned to this fact, as if everyday evils are normal, as if they cannot be stopped.
But the Girl does not resign herself to what is “normal” in Bad City. It’s not enough for her to sit in her basement apartment and listen to her music. Since she must feed, so she might as well clean up the streets.
Saeed steals Arash’s car as payment for Hossein’s debts. He humiliates Atti and coerces her into oral sex. So the Girl stalks him, lets him think she’s easy to manipulate, and then kills him in a terrifying but incredibly satisfying scene. I was glad she did.
Hossein leeches off Arash his son, wallowing in his self-pity. He also refuses to leave Atti alone, harrassing her into spending the night with him and then shooting her up with heroin before forcing himself on her. The Girl dispenses with Hossein swiftly and without mercy.
Most telling is the encounter between the Girl and the Street Urchin. With a snarling voice and contorted face, The Girl grips him tightly and demands that he tell her if he is “a good boy” or not. And when he is scared shitless, she hisses that he better “Be a good boy, or else.” It’s a threat and a promise—the Girl will hunt you down if perpetuate violence and cruelty against others, especially those who you’ve manipulated, those you have taken advantage of.
The story could have easily veered off into a tale about the dangers of possessing moral authority and how it can corrupt. But it doesn’t have the chance. The Girl is aware that she too is an evil. She is inherently flawed because of what she is.
There is a pivotal scene where she kills and drains a homeless man, a man who didn’t do anything except fall asleep in an alley. To me, The Girl did not seem cool and confident in this scene—she seemed desperate and animalistic, barely holding it together. I think she was compelled to feed and could not find a more suitable victim. Later, she feels guilt. I suspect that it wasn’t her first time killing someone innocent. She all but admits this to Arash, confessing that she has “Done bad things.” She possesses self-awareness on a level not displayed by many monsters or figures of moral authority, and certainly not by anyone else in the film.
I felt a certain empathy towards the Girl. She may be a monster in the literal sense of the word, being a vampire and all, but damned if she wasn’t trying harder than everyone in Bad City to act with decency and to impose a system of right and wrong. In this way, she isn’t a threat to society—she’s trying to create a more just society by tearing down the old, decrepit society, one horrible person at a time. She is doing her best to make her world better, all the while managing her own dark compulsions. She is not perfect, but at least she is sincere.
If that’s not the human condition, I don’t know what is. If that’s not all we can ask for from each other, I don’t know what the point is.
So then I was left wondering, who was the real monster in the film? Does it even matter? Or is it more important for me to compare myself to this monster? Can I learn something from a shared struggle, if there is any?
What do you think, Internet?