52 Films by Women: Ana Lily Amirpour's 'A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night'
I am a natural night owl. I have been my entire life. It’s not a matter of insomnia, I just have a sleep cycle that’s tilted a few hours later than most people. And I love the night. I love being awake when the world is quiet and still, and I love having a time that feels like it’s my own. In college I worked an overnight job in the dorms, and would wander around campus in the quiet, still hours of the very late night or very early morning and enjoy the beauty of them. But the night does not, and has never loved me back. Outside the (relatively) safe confines of my college’s campus, I cannot wander freely at night. I can’t take a brisk stroll to organize my thoughts, or wander under the stars enjoying the world without the usual distractions and noise. And perhaps that’s why I had such a visceral response to A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.
When people call A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night a vampire movie, they are only ever referring to the titular girl. But there are many vampires in Bad City; from Hossein the junkie feeding off his son’s good will and work, to Saeed the pimp and drug dealer who serves him, to Atti the prostitute who makes her living off the desperate and lonely, while being desperate and lonely herself. There are likely more, the ravine full of bodies seems plenty suggestive, but the characters we meet make it clear enough; In Bad City you survive by sucking someone else dry. The Girl is the most honest of the bunch. Arash is the exception, despite his Dracula costume, he is incapable of the hostility and carelessness needed to be a true bottom feeder.
The best parts of the film are the scenes where director and writer Ana Lily Amirpour sets up a scene that looks like something familiar and turns it on its head. The scene where The Girl kills Saeed is the first of these. The “seduction” is laced with actions and cues that should make us fear for the safety of The Girl. The way he ostentatiously presents his living area and sound system, how he stiffly perches on the couch to blow lines and count his cash, his nonchalant stroll over to do a few quick bicep curls with his hand weights while The Girl observes. Every bit of it is just drenched in self consciousness and arrogance, right up until The Girl bites off his finger, the entire facade crumbles, and he is prey and she is the predator. That scene could exist in and of itself, from him picking her up on the street to her robbing his corpse and leaving his apartment unlocked; it’s a complete story and it tells you that there are no safe assumptions here.
Even knowing what The Girl is, it is hard to combat the ingrained instinct to see a woman of her stature as powerless or submissive. When she brings Arash to her apartment and stands at the record player while he approaches her from behind as “Death” by White Lies plays, everything about the scene is meant to elicit comparisons to similar scenes in romance movies; of a leading man approaching a woman with possibilities heavy in the air. But here, the outcome isn’t a clinch, it’s The Girl deciding to spare Arash’s life. Despite the blocking, despite the precedent, despite everything we expect, she is and always was the dominant player in the scene.
There are scenes where director and writer Ana Lily Amirpour stands in for The Girl. If you know where to look, you can spot them. They are the scenes where The Girl is skateboarding, perhaps the clearest expression of freedom and joy we ever see from The Girl. Amirpour has a striking resemblance to star Sheila Vand and takes advantage of the opportunity to bring this part of herself (Amirpour is a skateboarder) to the character and the film.
I won’t go so far as to say that A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is perfect. It isn’t. It seems undecided as to how “Other” The Girl should be. Her attempts at friendship with Atti and Arash seem to show her sympathetic to people, even imperfect people, but her stalking of Hossein, Saeed, and her treatment of The Urchin make her seem more of a monster in human skin who relishes her power. There are scenes that border on self-indulgent, and some direction choices that can read a little too clever on second viewing. But it’s a beautiful movie, the atmosphere is perfect, and as a girl who has walked home alone at night before, it hits me in a place I don’t talk about a lot.
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