In all honesty, I needed several Wikipedia pages to fully understand Vice Films’ tagline for Ana Lily Amirpour’s film, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. It is presented as “the first Iranian Vampire Western” and has also been described as noir, spaghetti western, Iranian New Wave, pulp, and “feminist-romantic.” It’s clear that the first Iranian romantic-new-wave-vampire-pulp-spaghetti-western ultimately resists categorization.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, which is currently playing in limited release in the United States, revolves around a chador-cloaked vampire who occasionally wears red lipstick (the unnamed Girl, played by Sheila Vand), a drug-dealing pimp with a vast taxidermy collection (Saeed, played by Dominic Rains), a heroin-addicted widower father (Hossain, played by Marshall Manesh), and his doe-eyed son, a collector of odd jobs and general enabler of his father’s drug abuse (Arash, played by Arash Marandi). Through these characters and their narratives, Amirpour creates a dystopian underground that subtly distorts reality. The film sets our modern world in greyscale, with vampires and drugs and children on skateboards and a ditch where dead bodies are dumped.
Amirpour’s characters and their intertwining narratives (see: pulp) are set against the backdrop of a patriarchal society (see: western). The stories or scenes themselves are acts of resistance against that society (see: feminist-romantic). Bear with me here: In one scene, a female vampire lurks behind a car and in the car is a pimp collecting from a prostitute, asking her when she’s planning on getting married. In another, a young handyman is fixing something in a girl’s room and asks her to leave because it is shameful for a man and a woman to be alone in a room together—then he proceeds to steals her diamond earrings. Also: a genderqueer Rockabilly fan waltzes with a balloon in an industrial yard with aluminum-roofed shacks plastered with Iranian political posters.
This film does not even attempt to beg any religious question—in a good way. The chador is almost depoliticized and stripped of the weight of religion. The chador is instead turned into a functional tool used by a vampire as disguise. When the chador-wearing Girl is asked if she’s religious, she responds with a swift “no.” When the chador-wearing Girl walks past a poster in the street that encourages women to wear chador, Amirpour redefines a rational of why it should be worn in the first place. Instead of being a shield from a dangerous patriarchal society, the chador becomes a cape and the Girl becomes the omnipotent vigilante—as if behind every dark street corner is a lurking female vampire ready to suck the blood and bite off the finger of any oppressive man daring to cross her path or her sense of justice.
While this film has only been released in the United States, it’s not exclusively made for a Western audience. Written in Farsi and subtitled in English, the film’s layered writing offers contradictory meanings if you try to dig deep for a message. Amirpour’s attention to detail illustrates her acute awareness of her audience’s viewing experience regardless of language, identity, or time. She uses music effectively to create an ambiguous setting that keeps the audience uncertain of where or when the events are taking place. The film’s soundtrack uses songs from contemporary artists that sound like 80’s punk or pop songs in the West. She features artists like Farah (who sounds like an 80’s pop star), Radio Tehran (whose members were born in the 80’s), and White Lies (whose featured song, “Death,” sounds like it’s by an 80s synth band). The movie is shot in Bakersfield, California yet her landscapes range from what could be an American suburban neighborhood to the oil fields of Iran (or Texas). The most resonant of her landscapes is the image of a nodding oil pump set against a dusty industrial background, the pump nodding, churning, working away almost like a human would.
One of the most interesting details is the way the script plays with language. For example, the villainous drug dealer Saeed has a face tattoo in Persian calligraphy which reads “jaksh” or pimp. While the English-speaking audience may notice the archetypal character with a tattoo of sweeping calligraphy across his right temple, the Farsi-reading audience immediately sees this character for what he actually is. Cleverly, Armipour offers alternate meanings for the city in which the film is set. While the English-speaking audience will read the subtitles beneath Arash’s license plate as “Bad City,” her Farsi-speaking (or reading) audience will read “shahr bad” which literally means “Wind City” and colloquially translates to “in the wind.” If the world’s first Iranian Vampire Western is set “in the wind” as opposed to a place called “Bad City,” then the events of the film can carry a different meaning.
Amirpour offers her audiences different ways to experience A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night by presenting truly trans-national content, which more than likely mirrors her own experience as a badass artist born to Iranian parents and living in the West. No wonder it defies genre—Armipour refuses to be pinned down.