A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night: A Monochromatic Western-Noir-Horror

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A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) is the brilliant debut of Ana Lily Amirpour, who wrote and directed the film. We might call it an “Eastern,” given the story’s setting in an Iranian town. But the film’s themes and actual setting (Taft, California) give it a deliberate Western flavour. So, an eastern western, which makes for a productive tension—the sort that we find in Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Perspolis (2000), which, like Amirpour’s film, is in black and white.

The monochromatic colour pattern of film and graphic novel has a number of aesthetic features, which enable both Amirpour and Satrapi to comment on a specific medium and its associated cultural assumptions. For Satrapi, it would be hypermasculine comic book heroes, and for Amirpour, hypermasculine western and noir heroes. (See Mark Kermode’s review.) I’d like to talk about both female artists, but (for brevity’s sake) I’ll stick to Amirpour’s film for now. (As it happens, Satrapi adapted her book and directed a film version in 2007.)

Even before the main action of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, the opening credits evoke the Sergio Leone western, including what we might guess to be the “cowboy”:

Screenshot 2015-10-22 at 9.54.58 AM

But the dude in the James Dean get-up is not the film’s hero. And, really, were meant to ponder what sort of heroism might actually exist in such a bleak place. The monochrome cinematography enhances the bleakness and the limited opportunities in “Bad City,” a town that, according to Peter Bradshaw, is likely meant to evoke Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City (2005). So there’s a noir atmosphere, too, setting us up for a story about murder and corruption. (If you blink, you might miss the gorge filled with dead bodies, which is in the background when the film’s title first appears onscreen.)

Immediately in the film, we see deliberate parallels between a woman who sucks blood and an oil industry as well as a drug trade that metaphorically draw out the lifeblood of their victims. We’re asked to contemplate who the real pariahs or parasites are. The comparisons are encouraged by a glimpse of oil derricks pumping out oil, and an early scene where the James Dean guy, Arash (Arash Marandi), cosoles his drug-addicted father Hussein (Marshall Manesh), while the drug-dealer Saeed (Dominic Rains) mocks and harasses the poor man. Indeed, male vampirism is a key part of the film’s focus and the best example of Amirpour’s sophisticated update of old genres (so, westerns, noirs, and horror flicks).

SCENE: Saeed is sampling from his product—that is, one of his prostitutes, Atti (Mozhen Marno). Though, in the middle of things, he’s disturbed by the sudden and sinister appearance of a figure in a black veil. He blinks and the figure is gone.

As Bradshaw rightly notes, “the Girl” (Sheila Vand) appears to float rather than walk along surfaces, adding to her eery persona. She’s always there, just on the margins, on the edge of the camera lens—enough to give both women and men the creeps. (See the trailer for an example of this.) And yet, despite the repeated appearance of this cloaked figure, veiled and mysterious, Saeed thinks nothing of inviting this strange woman into his home. So what happens next? Let’s just say that Amirour knows her vampire lore.

The male-centred western and noir get turned on their heads as the Girl plays both outlaw and hero, preying on the (male) predators and giving aid to the (female and male) victims. She does all of this while grooving to Western music, riding a skateboard, and being generally bad-ass… while not saying very much of anything. So Amirpour has at least retained one aspect of tradition: the silent woman. But the Girl’s actions speak well enough.

Consider the following parallel scenes:

SCENE: Saeed rubs his finger in a sensual manner over the lips of Atti. She responds as desired, though the act is interrupted by the appearance of the Girl.

SCENE: Saeed rubs his finger in a sensual manner over the lips of the Girl. She responds as desired, though the act is interrupted by… something gruesome. (For those who have not seen the film, I leave the gruesome part to your imagination.)

Saeed, we could say, cries like a little girl. But after this scene, we might have to update our analogy.

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