The 2014 Jim Jarmusch movie in which Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton play a pair of perfectly pale bloodsucking hipster lovers living in Detroit and Tangier isn't even the coolest vampire film of the year. That honor belongs to the swoony A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, which opens in New York and L.A. on Nov. 21. On the off chance it's not the only Persian feminist vampire western in existence, the debut feature from writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour isn't going out on a limb to suggest that it has to be the best. But how could you not fall for a movie in which the title character picks up an abandoned skateboard and rolls down an empty street, her chador billowing out behind her like a cape belonging to far more traditional member of the undead?
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night was shot in Farsi in a small San Joaquin Valley town filling in for the fictional Iranian metropolis of Bad City, whose residents rattle around underpopulated industrial streets like the lonely survivors of some minor apocalypse. There's the handsome Arash (Arash Marandi), who works as a handyman for a wealthy family in order to support himself and his junkie father Hossein (Marshall Manesh); there's Saeed (Dominic Rains), a tattooed dealer and pimp; there's a little boy (Milad Eghbali) wandering, apparently unsupervised, by himself at night; and there's Atti (Blacklist addition Mozhan Marnò), a streetwalker Saeed taunts for having reached the ripe age of 30.
And then there's the Girl (Sheila Vand), who dances by herself in a bedroom decorated with band posters and Christmas lights like a teenager getting ready for a party, lining her eyes and covering her head before heading out to roam the streets. An indie waif acting as avenging feminist monster, the Girl lurks in the shadows, watching the abusers and thieves and biding her time. She rarely speaks, letting her victims damn themselves with their own words and actions, watching silently with her huge, dark eyes. She's a lonely, melancholy figure, but in her solitude is a heady freedom. And she's far from a victim — one scene in which she allows herself to be picked up by a malicious thug develops masterfully from arrogant seduction into brutal predation.
Like the title implies, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night turns a typical scenario of vulnerability into something ominous. The Girl can be frightening, when she's devouring her latest kill or floating up behind an urchin to warn him she'll be watching his future behavior ("I can take your eyes out of your skull and give them to dogs to eat" she hisses). But in another light, she looks like an innocent, clumsily trying to come to someone's aid in a less violent way. When her path crosses with Arash's one night courtesy of a wry costume party joke, she's caught aback by his drug-addled gentleness — "You're so cold!" he says, enfolding her in a hug — and the two embark on a tentative, halting romance.
There's a ragged-edged, throwback feel to A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, which looks a lot like an early film from someone like Jarmusch or even David Lynch, a deadpan, minimalist black-and-white fable. But Amirpour is a romantic as well — the signs are all over the scenes in which her extremely photogenic leads cautiously reach out to one another, and in the way she intersperses the spooky ambient sound of the Bad City streets with lush songs, Iranian and otherwise. A tender scene set to "Death" by the British rock band White Lies plays like an impossibly decadent stolen moment of connection, and at times like that, the film doesn't feel small at all.
Bad City may be a grim place to live, especially if you're poor, but it's also a peculiar kind of fantasy — an impossible place that's not quite Iran or anywhere else, a ghost town where an indie rock vampire girl and a self-made rockabilly can find each other on the empty streets. For Amirpour, who was born in England but who moved to the U.S. when she was young, it feels like it could be a dream metropolis perched on multiple cultural frontiers — where Iran meets Southern California meets feminism meets '80s indies meets rock 'n' roll and more. If there's no preexisting model for the kind of films you really want to make and the characters you want to populate them, then you have to make your own, cobbled together from the things you love — and in that, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night feels wonderfully new.