The place is called “Bad City,” and I believe there’s a pun. A common suffix for cities in the Middle East is abad, which indeed roughly means “city” in Arabic. Hence, “Bad City” could well translate into “City of Cities,” a place in which the sense of urbanity—and perhaps too its inherent badness—is intensified, if not doubled. One can also interpret Bad City to be a mirror, or a representative, of cities, one in which part and parcel of the exacerbation of urbanism is that there is a mise-en-abyme, a metropolis-within-the-metropolis, a reiterative element that is often hidden and opaque but that is nonetheless crucial to its identity as a city. Lastly, and this may be stretching it, but there are affectations of arrogance, insistence and dubious uses of power in the emphasis that are far from irrelevant to the nasty history of the Middle East. Remember how Muammar Qaddafi (rot in Hell) styled himself as the “King of Kings.”
This nuance is just one of the endless things to admire about A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, a Farsi-language film shot near Bakersfield, California, that has been billed as an “Iranian vampire western.” The directorial debut of one Ana Lily Amirpour, Girl wears the trappings of the genres it stirs together on its sleeve with such pride and braggadocio that I doubted it was satirical or even tongue-in-cheek. For all of the narrative traditions it copies, it takes itself seriously—but it more than earns the right to do so because it deals with the genre conventions on their own terms, even when it twists them. I imagine that a city that has a city inside itself would be more aware of its own urban qualities and more capable of challenging and subverting them. Likewise, the characters in Girl have so many classic film genres and precedents around them that they have no choice but to attune to and reckon with them.
In its most critical riff on the vampire trope, Girl announces itself as a radical (maybe post-) feminist statement. This much is evident from the way the opening credits (and the trailer) wring every possible drop of tension out of the film’s verbose title. Some men may not understand the conflict and risk innate in the very act of a girl walking home alone at night, but most if not all women do. Anyway: in our culture, the vampire is a placeholder for the predatory man, draining young girls of blood in lieu of raping them. In Girl, that tradition is reversed; the vampire is the girl (Sheila Vand, the treacherous maid in Argo), and she targets the men of Bad City who treat women like crap. It’s vigilantism, yes, but it’s still bloodlust; there’s one telling scene in which it’s clear that this girl truly struggles with her homicidal nature. Feminism is an essential good, but it is no less vulnerable to abuse than the world’s plentiful other isms, and the film gains much of its strength from wrestling with this truth.
Frankly, I’d be more hesitant spoiling the film’s vampirism if it wasn’t already advertised so much. The film takes its time to introduce us to Bad City, its futurist western landscape and its Persian population: the young James Deansian car fanatic Arash (Arash Marandi), his cat, his ne’er-do-well father Hossein (Marshall Manesh, the limo driver on How I Met Your Mother), the stylish courtesan Atti (Mozhan Marnò, the reporter on House of Cards), her über-tattooed client Saeed (Dominic Rains), and a little boy with a skateboard. Amirpour’s Bad City is one of broad interiors, Magrittean architecture, lurid industrial piazzas and oddly subdued suburbs, and I felt at home in it right away. The first scene where the girl shows her ace is an extended confrontation between her and Saeed that arrives about half an hour in. The pop soundtrack, the reliance on character and action more than dialogue, and the slow pace—which at once is relaxed and stores a blistering payoff—reminded me much of the botched-drug-deal climax of Boogie Nights. I mean it when I write that Amirpour could be the next P.T. Anderson.
Especially deserving of attention and study in Girl is its use of juxtapositions. Of course, it is shot in black and white, and Nick Schager of The A.V. Club has written a stupendous analysis of Lyle Vincent’s cinematography that I will not maim by quoting. For now, I will elaborate on a small but crucial way in which the film’s self-referencing buttresses its contrasts. To the extent Girl has a plot (it’s best viewed as a tone poem), it’s a romance between the girl and Arash, who meet after a Halloween party. Arash is buzzed on ecstasy and dressed as Dracula; placed next to the actual bloodsucker, he is garish and almost hilarious. The problem with love in cinema is that the effort to cram a well-developed romantic relationship into about two hours is often an exercise in futility. (Usually, love takes years to blossom.) Girl approaches this issue with a refreshing honesty—in which it is understood that Arash and the girl are acting on instinct and mutual lust and could well be having a brief fling—and with a counterpoint that contrasts its short timespan with its measured pace. Its best scene involves Arash in the girl’s room, walking to her, slowly, and her accepting his advance, slowly, all to the tune of White Lies’ “Death”—a song that is still stuck in my head. The moment is so simple and banks so much on its soundtrack choice that it demands flawless acting—and gets it. David Thomson, a tough and contrarian British film critic, is already on record naming this “one of the most ecstatic scenes in film history,” and it’s hard to argue against that.
As a hodgepodge of genres, Girl is constructed in part as a series of vignettes, and as a film buff, I will treasure most of the vignettes on display here for a long time. Smitten with the girl, Arash spends one breakfast prodding a sunny-side-up egg with his fork; he hesitates to break the yolk, in contrast to the girl’s impulse to break skin with her teeth. The girl has a run-in with the skateboarding boy, and we can see the post-feminist perspective wherein she might be taking it an inch too far. In a cinéma vérité diversion, Hossein loses his shit and goes postal on the cat, with ugly consequences. Even a fleeting shot of a world map is infused with much power here. If we are in the real world, then are we in California, Transylvania, or Persia? Most of the suspense comes from Arash’s unawareness that his love interest is a vampire. As the story builds up to Arash’s inevitable epiphany, the characters devolve, the mood grows more somber, and dialogue is eschewed more in earnest, with the final five minutes or so being totally wordless, elemental and pure. I can see where some critics would call the last scene a copout, but in the end, the Ah-fuck-it bravado of the resolution won me over. Endemic as sequels are in cinema today, I will have no issue if Amirpour decides to return me to Bad City in her next film. Neither will you.