There’s no love in Bad City. Only junkies, pushers, pimps, whores, a ravine full of dead bodies . . . and a vampire.
Writer-director-producer Ana Lily Amirpour brings a highly original indie film, the “first Iranian Vampire Western,” to the screen with “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.” It is the slow-burn story of an avenging female vampire, The Girl (Sheila Vand), who meets the only man in Bad City who might be worthy of sparing, Arash (Arash Marandi).
The slow unfolding of the story, along with its sparse, concise dialogue, highlights the seemingly eternal nature of Bad City’s empty desolation. This is accentuated by the director’s canny choice to film in black and white (artistically accomplished by DP Lyle Vincent), which heightens the ironic, day-night contrasts in this film.
One of these contrasts has to do with gender. Bad City’s males (except, perhaps, for two — and one is a boy, the Street Urchin [Milad Eghbali]) treat women like trash, yet cannot live without them. For example, Arash’s father, Hossein (Marshall Manesh), has become a junkie since the death of his wife. Now he lives only for heroin and his favorite prostitute, Atti (Mozhan Marnò), two vices that he unfortunately cannot afford.
As a result, Hossein is deeply in debt to Atti’s pimp, Saeed (Dominic Rains), who is also the local pusher. Saeed, the archetypal misogynist who treats Atti like discarded and devalued property, is also contemptuous of men he considers weaker than himself. He takes Arash’s prize vintage car (for which Arash worked “2,191 days” as a gardener) when Hossein cannot pay him.
Enter The Girl, who kills Saeed after observing him degrading and abusing Atti in Arash’s car. It’s worth noting that she symbolically castrates him by biting off his finger before she does away with him in the traditional vampire way. This act removes a predator from Bad City and indirectly benefits Arash, who not only reclaims his car but also takes Saeed’s briefcase full of money and drugs. Soon he is the new dealer in town.
Despite the fact that The Girl describes herself as “bad,” she provides the only semblance of justice that exists in Bad City. It plays out as a rather extreme form of gender justice. Nevertheless, The Girl is not without a sense of mercy. Rather than kill the Street Urchin, for example, she warns him that he had better be a “good boy” as he grows up because she will be closely watching him and his behavior.
The Girl does so as she stalks Bad City at night, wearing traditional female Iranian garb (which is itself a touch of irony). Arash encounters her for the first time while he wanders through a suburban part of Bad City after getting high on Ecstasy at a costume party. This situation is dangerous for Arash, although he does not realize it.
The seriousness of this danger is lightened by the comedy of this scene, which is well staged and played. While unknowingly encountering a real vampire, Arash himself is dressed as Dracula and introduces himself to The Girl as such. On her part, The Girl is riding the Street Urchin’s skateboard, thereby creating cinema’s first skater vampire.
In this comically-staged encounter, The Girl realizes that Arash is a rare find in Bad City: a kind and good-natured man who also dresses like James Dean and is, in fact, a rebel without a cause. Rather than kill him, she decides to begin a relationship with him, one about which she is highly ambivalent at first. The rest of the film answers the question of whether love can exist and survive in Bad City.
In telling this story, this film highlights the often-overlooked importance of location scouting and production design. Shot in Southern California, it uses available locations to create a quasi-Iranian landscape that nevertheless has a universality at its core. Bad City could be anywhere. Daylight shots of oil rigs draining the land of its resources complement nighttime scenes shot at industrial electrical plant. All of these locations accentuate Bad City’s image as a world of the exploited.
The film’s killer score is also a study in contrasts. It’s a mashup of Western pop music (by which The Girl, in particular, is enthralled), contemporary songs in Farsi, and traditional Iranian music. This musical variety points out yet another conflict: Western vs. Eastern culture. It’s notable that both exist in Bad City, so neither one is favored as intrinsically good.
Based on a short by Amirpour, “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” was financed in part by an Indiegogo campaign. It premiered at Sundance in 2014 and has gone on to show at many other festivals. It has picked up several awards, including the Carnet Jove Jury Award and the Citizen Kane Award for Best Directorial Revelation, both at Sitges. It is currently available (in Farsi with English subtitles) via Netflix, iTunes, Google Play, Vudu, and Amazon. If you haven’t already, I highly recommend that you watch this excellent indie film as soon as possible. Amirpour and her filmmaking colleagues clearly are going places.