'A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night' Is A Supernatural Vision Of Progress [Sundance 2014 Review]

There's an implied threat in the title of the film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Those words together suggest menace and victimization. An image forms, not of a woman out for an enjoyable stroll, but of one who might not make it home.

A reversal of that threat is the core of this vampire film written and directed by Ana Lily Amirpour. Luminescent black and white photography buttresses a very spare approach to story. Into the tale are woven supernatural tropes, and elements of westerns and '50s rebel movies. Shot in California but set in Iran, with dialogue in Farsi, the film's images and characters are a collision of Iranian and American cultures, specifically with respect to social politics of sex and gender. This is an inversion of classic horror, because it is not about victimization of the person described in the title, but rather that person's retaliation against forces that seek to dominate and subjugate.

The girl, played by Sheila Vand, is never given a name, but she is defined by her appearance and her actions. Her home is a rock 'n roll basement lair, adorned with images of American musical icons such as Madonna and Michael Jackson. Within, she dances in quiet, blissed-out fashion; she could be the next-door neighbor of Tom Hiddleston in fellow Sundance vampire feature Only Lovers Left Alive. She glides through moonlit streets clad in a chador and black and white striped shirt. Her garb creates an immediately recognizable silhouette, whether the girl is in focus or blurred deep in the background. The girl isn't the victim, but she isn't quite your typical monster.

This young woman (or a very old one?) lives in Bad City, which is just a few tumbleweeds and an old horse away from being a dying town in the American west. The residents are more symbols than people. It's a collection of masculine and feminine archetypes: a gangster, a whore, an old junkie, his son Arash. And the girl, of course. A thin web of plot binds them. The gangster sells drugs and pimps the whore; Arash pines after a rich girl and works to square his dad's debt to the gangster.

The townspeople break down into two basic groups: do they have the desire and the potential to harm the girl, and women in general, or not? Those with the desire are advised to clear out of Bad City before they find the sharp teeth hiding behind the girl's lips. Some characters aren't killed, but just slip away into cracks in the story. One Bad City resident, a dancing transvestite, may only be a visual metaphor for a transition from restrictive old gender roles to something more progressive.

Seductive images are more compelling than the story and characters. That can be off-putting, and slows the film's pace, but the approach does allow for creation of a thick atmosphere. There's the languidness of a Jim Jarmusch movie, and some of the steam of early David Lynch. The film indulges in long visions of the vampiric "heroine" on the trail of her prey, and of her skateboarding through empty neighborhoods. It can all veer towards inscrutable at times; a cool distance often exists between film and audience.

Yet there is something like a sweet, or at least optimistic center, as the girl finds the junkie's son Arash in a particularly vampiric meet cute, leading to a possible future in the west. Perhaps one where she doesn't have to kill as many men. (How would that work? For one, there's a sense that the girl kills more because she can than because she is driven to.)

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night isn't always satisfying as a narrative — there might be a better way to mix character and lingering visual play — but there's no arguing that Amirpour has a voice, and a developing style. There's something here you've probably never seen before, and that's worth a lot. This isn't a traditional horror film, nor is there reason to believe it wants to be, just as the girl is not a traditional vampire.

Images of a feminist vampire sucking bad dudes dry are provocative, especially in the setting of an Iranian town. And why not reverse well-established genre approaches to monsters, gender, and power? The vampire girl's actions express a desire for change and progression, but there's no reason she can't cut loose against the worst offenders. This is horror or fantasy, perhaps a dream, where the girl can own her part of the night by any means necessary.

/Film rating: 6.5 out of 10