This is a little embarrassing. As a self-proclaimed Jim Jarmusch fan, I was very eager to see his latest movie, a refreshingly quirky take on the vampire genre. I even wrote a rather long piece on Only Lovers Left Alive, which you can read here. So did I have egg on my face when I discovered the great American indie auteur filmed a companion vampire story at the same time. Sort of a Clint Eastwood Flags of Our Fathers/Letters from Iwo Jima vibe.
I am happy to report that Jarmusch’s other vampire flick, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, mostly lives up to what we expect from the genius. To properly place it in the JJ’s canon, we must first … wait a sec, please excuse me. I’m getting a text. Beg pardon? Not Jarmusch at all? A young American woman of Iranian descent? You don’t say. Well, tilt my head back and pierce my jugular. Who knew?
Apparently, lots of people are now getting to know Ana Lily Amirpour, whose first feature, A Girl Walks Home … played at 2014’s Sundance NEXT program. Whether the slow, stylised film is to your tastes or not, it must rank as one of the most-assured feature debuts of the last several years.
A Girl Walks Home… begins with a classic Jarmusch-like moment. A good-looking young man, Arash (Arash Marandi) slouches against a wooden frame, letting time pass by and letting us acclimate to the somnambulant rhythms of “Bad City,” a fictional Iranian village, which feels dark and deserted even in broad daylight. After a suitable period of time, Arash will duck off inside the wooden frame and retrieve a cat who will serve as a mute witness to most of the subsequent drama. (BTW, it’s a hell of a performance by the cat, whose stillness matches the movie’s tone to purrfection.) Arash will then jump in his revved up sports coup and speed off. Tell me this isn’t Jarmusch.
Well, OK, it isn’t Jarmusch because Arash will eventually encounter a mysterious young woman known only as “The Girl” (Sheila Vand) and they will embark on a tentative and dangerous love affair. Arash may have slightly more screen time than The Girl and may be viewed as the central character of the narrative. But The Girl is clearly the central character if you are seeking meaning. Jarmusch was never one to elevate female characters nor has he seemed all that interested in traditional romance (though his vampire movie is clearly his most traditional love story).
The Girl is a vampire, a point which Amirpour properly reveals rather early. She will prey predominantly on cruel men. Since the men she feeds on are shown brutalising women, it is natural to assume there is a feminist statement here about justice and vengeance. It is important to realise, though, that the men in question also brutalise Arash. It is not the physical, sexualised brutality that they inflict upon women, but it is a brand of humiliating repression. Arash is cheated and robbed. The Girl, in a sense, avenges him. So, though it is important to recognise the gender-based themes at play, it is equally important to see The Girl as a protector of all innocents. She has the power to defeat the evil, and her struggles to control that power – to not inflict her natural impulse to feed on Arash – is palpable. In this, you can see a more universal struggle that those in positions of power will always face. It is a debate that touches on many vexing political questions today.
Enough of that. The Girl is a kick-ass avenger and it is crucial that she be female. One of the most memorable – and terrifying – scenes comes fairly early on, when she confronts a young boy who, like the cat, mostly serves as a witness to the odd goings-on in Bad City. This boy (Milad Eghbali) seems to be a total innocent. But that doesn’t stop The Girl from scaring the crap out him, threatening to do to him what she has already done to the brutal men of the world. She cautions him to “be good” for she will always be watching. It’s a message that he will likely remember.
This is one of the few scenes in which The Girl speaks – or at least speaks in more than a few clipped syllables. She is mostly silent, gliding through the streets like a spectre. In this regard, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is much closer to Jonathan Glazer’s tantalising Under the Skin than to Jarmusch. Both A Girl Walks Home… and Under the Skin are about silent women who are far more powerful than any of the men they encounter. Their silence is crucial. In the worlds they inhabit – male-dominated landscapes – speaking is of little value. They realise on an instinctual level that they will not be heard. They will be seen as objects to be conquered. Talking is rendered pointless. You can see these as direct counterpoints to the classic Hollywood activism of Norma Rae or Erin Brockovich. It’s not insignificant that those Hollywood movies were named for their heroines, while these two 2104 releases don’t even give their heroines names.
Choosing between A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and Under the Skin depends on whether you prefer relationship stories or character studies. In both movies, the central woman is touched and perhaps humanised by her encounters with men. But in Glazer’s movie, there is no character corresponding to Arash. The focus remains almost exclusively on Scarlett Johansson’s “female.” As a result, that character is ultimately more memorable than The Girl. However, the addition of Arash offers a dimension missing from Under the Skin, and it does help make The Girl pretty damn memorable in her own right. There is a virtually static shot in the middle of the movie of The Girl in profile. She will slowly turn to face Arash. The shot must go on for several minutes and it is mesmerising. Needless to say, were there no Arash to turn toward, the shot would not exist.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a beautiful movie. Lyle Vincent’s B&W cinematography is pretty darned spectacular. Though slowly paced, the screen pulses with energy and intrigue. Cross-cultural rock music adds energy. The acting, and there are really only seven characters in the entire movie (eight if you count the cat), is quite good, especially from Vand in the central role. Here’s hoping we see a lot more from Amirpour. My man Jarmusch is 61. We need some new voices.