Like lots of horror movies, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (AGWHAAN) starts by getting us to hate someone and then killing them off. A loan shark covered in tattoos (including one that says “SEX” on his Adam’s apple) collects a vintage car from someone who doesn’t owe him, assaults a prostitute, does some cocaine, and then gets eaten by a vampire after trying to seduce her. Let this movie stand as a rallying cry against misogynist douchebags everywhere! Wait, wasn’t it distributed by VICE? They’re really playing the field with this one, aren’t they?
While horror is the most visible, it’s only one of the genres in AGWHAAN’s melting pot. Although it doesn’t tell you what kind of movie it is for a while, AGWHAAN is a love story between Arash, a young guy living in an Iranian slum called Bad City, and The Girl, an unnamed vampire new to the area. As far as other characters go, there’s the loan shark and prostitute I mentioned, Arash’s heroin-addicted father, a rich girl Arash gardens for, and a cute cat.
Honestly, it’s been a while since a movie left me feeling this conflicted. Maybe I wanted too much. When your tagline is “the first Iranian vampire Western” and Andrew O’Hehir one-ups that with “the black-and white, feminist Iranian vampire western you’ve been waiting for,” my expectations get unreasonable.
Looking at it one way, AGWHAAN delivers the goods, showing off director Ana Lily Amirpour’s amazing eye, sense of timing, and tight control of your expectations. With no budget and not much time, she makes you feel however she wants you to feel—fear, laughter, anger, pathos, awe, you name it, she’ll bring it out of you at some point.
From a different direction, AGWHAAN is basically Twilight for people who like VICE. Old VICE, like “documentaries about Colombian men having sex with donkeys” VICE, not the new “embedding in warzones and caring about global issues” VICE. AGWHAAN has a ton of standout scenes, but its hip, affected attitude, while initially endearing, blocks the story from going anywhere. You get the sense that Amirpour wanted a calling card first, a well-rounded experience second.
A couple of issues with the tagline. Number one, this isn’t a western. Just because you put accordion music in your opening credits and edit some scenes as slowly as Sergio Leone doesn’t mean your movie is a western. Number two, it’s not really Iranian in the strictest sense of the word. It’s set in a fictional town in Iran and the characters speak Farsi, but it was shot in Bakersfield, the armpit of California, and Amirpour was born in England and raised in America.
I bring that last point up not to whine about “authenticity” but because some critics, tripped up by the subtitles, are talking about how AGWHAAN’s whole deal is a fresh critique of Islamic patriarchy. I disagree. Wherever it fits in the Iranian diaspora, the movie has a local feminism, a feminism you’ll “get.” Though they’re sometimes superficially adorned with Iranian customs, the characters (even the sexists) seem to me to have mostly Western gendered attitudes that don’t go against Bad City’s grain in any significant way—we might as well be in Bakersfield. With that said, if I have an issue with the movie beyond its VICEness, it’s how its hip image of feminism doesn’t give us an actual feminist character.
Arash is an hipper, hotter Holden Caulfield. He’s boring, you’re not watching for him. You watch for The Girl: a chic, misandrist avenger of the night, her Urban Outfitters striped shirt wrapped in her chador-cowl as she prowls the streets on her skateboard and exacts justice on shitty men everywhere. She’s awesome. If reading the words “droll chador-wearing skateboarding feminist vampire superhero” has already settled whether or not you’re seeing this movie, I don’t blame you.
But why does she have an exclusive taste for rapists and abusers? More importantly, what does she see in Arash? We don’t find out. As good as Amirpour is at eliciting most emotions, she builds the Arash-Girl love connection mostly with loooong shots of them staring into each other’s eyes, instead of events that would lead a literal maneater like The Girl to fall for an angsty kid like Arash. As the film goes on, The Girl feels more like a construct and less like the complete character we hoped we would uncover. Sophia McDougall’s essay on Strong Female Characters feels relevant.
I don’t know. You’d probably like this movie. It’s got a feminist vampire superhero, a cute cat, and good music. It’s got a 96% on Rotten Tomatoes, and I’m an SAT tutor whose movie review you’re reading for some reason. I just hope Amirpour’s next film is less about novelty and ‘tude, more about the characters. According to her, her next project is “Road Warrior meets Pretty in Pink with a dope soundtrack” and also “El Topo meets Dirty Dancing” at the same time, so…we’ll see.
Kells is an Oakland native with a sad compulsion to put his opinions online. He hopes that you like them, but what’s really important is that you like yourself. @awkeller510