There's a lot that's unique about Ana Lily Amirpour's striking new film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. This will likely be cinema's only black-and-white feminist Western vampire movie, shot in a California ghost town but with all dialogue in Farsi ... unless Amirpour decides to make a sequel.
But as singular as this wonderfully moody indie is, its references are also familiar, recalling earlier bloodsuckers who've invaded the art-house realm. There's more than a hint of Jim Jarmusch in its elegantly-shot investigation of life on the fringes — A Girl would make a stellar double feature with Jarmusch's own subversive, post-horror vampire tale, Only Lovers Left Alive. A Girl also echoes Michael Almereyda's Nadja, another black-and-white entry with a female lead and deadpan performances. (And all three have killer soundtracks.)
Only A Girl, however, boasts star Sheila Vand and her thousand-yard, thousand-year-old stare. "The Girl," as she's called in the credits, prowls dried-up desert burg Bad City wearing a chador that not-coincidentally resembles a cape, and lipstick thick as war paint, feeding on men whom nobody will ever miss. (To that end, another double-feature idea: Under the Skin.)
After taking down the local track suit-wearing, two-bit gangster, Saeed (Dominic Rains), the Girl encounters Arash (Arash Marandi), who dresses like James Dean and drives a sweet vintage car, but is unhappily tasked with taking care of his junkie father — a gambler whose debts are erased as soon as the Girl plunges her fangs into Saeed's throat.
Love, or something resembling it, seems inevitable, especially when the pair meets again as Arash is stumbling home (alone at night) from a costume party, wearing his own cape and fangs. "I'm Dracula, but don't worry — I won't hurt you," he slurs, and neither does she hurt him. Instead, she settles him on her skateboard (yeah, by the way, she also skates) and wheels him back to her poster-bedecked basement lair, a setting that speaks to the sly, pop culture-attuned humor that winds through Amirpour's script. Why wouldn't a vampire like "True Blue"-era Madonna, or listen to Lionel Richie?
The pair's uneasy alliance is complicated by Arash's troubled home life and the Girl's supernatural status, but the sparks between them are undeniable. But there's business to attend to first; another chance meeting, between the silently stalking Girl and Bad City's resident prostitute — every frontier town has one — who are also unlikely kindred spirits. "You're sad. You don't remember what you want," the Girl says, speaking as much about herself as she is the other woman. Both women are trapped in lives they feel they can't change, at least without making a major sacrifice.
Though one gets the very clear sense that the Girl doesn't need a man to survive — a cultural convention that gets a knock early on, thanks to an Iranian TV talk-show host counseling women who've lost their husbands and, presumably, their self-worth — she surprises herself by warming to Arash. A theme emerges: the greatest horror is loneliness, for humans and vampires alike. But it's never certain where this dreamy story is heading, and that's part of its spell. Amirpour makes sure ambiguity reigns, keeping dialogue to a bare minimum and allowing Vand's expressive face, which shifts from mournful mask to shyly pleased smile to bloodthirsty rage with liquid ease, to take the focus.