A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night: Review – Sundance 2014

The girl roams the streets of Bad City, following those pimps, prostitutes, and children on skateboards, all of whom unwisely stayed out after dark. She returns home to walls plastered with Eighties icons, putting on eye-liner as music throbs, her world in black and white like those of her predecessors, Chantal Goya in Masculin Feminin and Anouk Aimée in . She looks to be no older than 24, yet she has thousands of years of experience. The boy, Arash, wears a white T-shirt like James Dean and carries a cat back to his car, which he worked 2,191 days to pay for. His father injects his feet with needles; other women offer varying degrees of casual affection. Yet once he meets her in the middle of the night, dressed as Dracula after a costume party, all bets are off.

Welcome to A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, the sizzling debut feature of Ana Lily Amirpour. Occupying the realm between vampire flick and Western – and by the way, it’s dialogue is almost entirely in Farsi – the film may remind you of dreams you’ve had or seen before on the silver screen, but it is entirely new, fresh, and thrilling in a way you will never forget. Performed by a marvelous ensemble, the film’s subterranean heart beats in the live-wire tension of leads Sheila Vand and Arash Marandi, who turn in astonishing performances that herald talents impossible to ignore.

I don’t want to spoil the fun of the movie’s twists and turns, so instead I will describe the broad outlines of images that particularly touched me: The first tentative steps of a love affair, splayed without words in a hold-your-breath long take where the centimeters between characters are measured on the Richter scale. The near static composition of a man by a power plant, helpless to move as a train thunders by and the plant belches smoke and fog. The crucial decision reached by the lovers in their car, with a cat in the middle who seems to know exactly where to look at the right emotional moment. (Masuka didn’t do press, so I didn’t get to ask him about it.) The aesthetic tows the line between comic book, B-movie, and art-house, recombined in an exquisite package by Lyle Vincent’s cinematography, Sergio de la Vega’s production design, and Amirpour’s restless obsessions. And the whole equation is amplified by the beguiling Vand and sympathetic Marandi. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is exhibit A in cinema’s unique ability to transfix through image, music, and pure performance.

It’s also a miraculous example of our new globalized world taking the medium to daring places. Witnessing the world of Bad City, one would suppose that it had to have been filmed in another country – or another planet. Though billed as Iranian, the film was shot in Taft, California. Do the language and culture define it as an international or “foreign” film? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe those labels will soon cease to exist, dissolving in the acid of limitations that once decried cinema as a lower art form. What matters is that A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a great film, period. To quote one of the classic songs by the violet-loving idol on the girl’s wall, “Paint a perfect picture, bring to life the vision in one’s mind. The beautiful ones always smash the picture, always, every time.”