Welcome to Bad City. Population: may as well be zero. Ana Lily Amirpour’s imaginary vision of an Iranian underworld, shot in Los Angeles, is one where trees look like atomic mushroom clouds, pimps and hookers freely roam the streets, bodies are rolled into ditches like clockwork, and the rich huddle unseen in the shadows. This “Tehrangeles,” as Amirpour has called it, is captured in radiant black and white, and the standoffs between the living and the maybe-dead that play out on its sparsely walked streets and sidewalks are framed as western duels. Post-punk in the key of Joy Division haunts the soundtrack as deeply as the clouds that perpetually darken what feel like ever-night skies. This could be the dominion of Henry Spencer, the Man with No Name, even the three imprisoned amigos from Down by Law. Really, though, it’s the feeding ground of a stone-faced, hijab-clad girl whose fangs come out whenever she catches a whiff of moral rot.
Though Amirpour has clearly huffed on the fumes of Lynch, Jarmsuch, Leone, and Tarantino’s oeuvres, to dismiss A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night as simply an act of hipster appropriation is to cop out, because appropriation, in fact, is the film’s thematic meat. The titular menace played by Sheila Vand, when she isn’t rolling around Bad City on a skateboard pilfered from a young boy (Milad Eghbali) whose eyes she threatens to feed to dogs if he’s ever naughty, passes her time in her closet-sized apartment applying makeup and listening to pop. On her walls are the faces of Madonna, Michael Jackson, and other music icons, who regard her malaise and, later, flirtation with romance like a Greek chorus. In a film that doesn’t lack for junkies, her musical addiction may be far from perilous, but it’s as much a symbol as the street urchin’s skateboard, the pimp’s cocaine straw, and her future lover’s tab of ecstasy: This world may not actually exist in Iran, but Amirpour sees the desires of her characters, like her mash-up artistry, as a representation of her people’s flux, their following of dangling carrots toward a more permissive view of life.
This girl who walks home alone at night both feeds on pop culture and the blood of those who don’t share her sense of righteousness. Her hunger for gender equality may be transparent, but her vigilante justice, in action, is disquieting in its slinky perversion and implications. It’s also as striking as Armirpour’s disarming of her antiheroine’s obstinacy after she’s smitten, at least in her own muted way, by a charming dreamer, Arash (Arash Marandi), with a cool car. Whether by foot or by skateboard, she shadows her prey, among them Arash’s addict father, Hoseein (Marshall Manesh), in eerie displays of silent mockery. One night, she stalks Saeed (Dominic Rains), a lascivious pimp with “sex” tattooed across his neck, back to a pad that seems to have been made in homage to Rahad Jackson’s manse from Boogie Nights. After watching him snort a few lines, play with his gun, and gyrate to some techno, the girl fellates his finger before promptly biting it off. And after she lets the wayward digit slide from her mouth, she strokes it across his lips, in effect turning patriarchy’s objectifying tactic against itself.
The film sketches out a clunky metaphysical correlation between humans and cats that doesn’t exactly fly, and its socio-cultural inquiry can hit like a blunt-force trauma, but the duets between the vampire and her lover act as bewitching leavening agents. The girl may never state her desires, but one imagines they align with those of a boy who wants nothing more than to hightail it out of Bad City, and who, in an intensely erotic scene scored like a dream and witnessed by the musical stars on the wall, drifts toward her and unconsciously reveals a code of honor that teases out of her something that resembles hope. It’s cute how these outsiders, these neo-children of Marx and Coca-Cola, meet after Arash leaves a costume party dressed as a vampire. And it’s fetching the way the borrowed bits of Amirpour’s pulp matter—the graphic-novel framing, the Morricone-esque spaghetti-western score, everyone’s cool-cat strut—coheres into a convincing commentary on how the culturally deprived try to make do with what they’ve got. But it’s the recurring image of ever-chugging oil drills that lingers most in the memory, hauntingly salient reminders of how phantoms are made when lands are bled dry of their natural resources.