Cold Bathory: A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night Reviewed

Mat Colegate sinks his teeth into Ana Lily Amirpour's Iranian vampire western, but does it suck? Or can you 'Count' on it being great?

Cool can be an extremely difficult thing to pull off. But Ana Lily Amirpour’s debut feature film, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night – “The first Iranian Vampire Western” – is by any reasoning pretty damn cool, marked out by its steady pacing and its constant stacking of image upon indelible image.

Set in the imaginary Iranian underworld town of ‘Bad City’ – but filmed in Taft, Southern California – A Girl Walks Home… orbits the lives of a handful of characters, all embodiments of one familiar archetype or the other, and the vampire (Sheila Vand) who variously stalks, terrifies and seduces them. We see this world mostly through the eyes of Arash (Arash Marandi), a prototypical Levi-jeaned-and-be-shaded worshipper at the church of rock’n’roll cliché, right down to the vintage car he drives and the just-so three finger width of his turn ups. Arash’s life revolves around the needs of his junkie father (Marshall Manesh), a dealer (Dominic Rains) and a cat (credited as ‘The Cat’), until his chance encounter with a mysterious girl throws his life out of balance. If all of this sounds perfectly straight forward – and if you’re a fan of horror then it should – be assured that what the film has in store for you is far from it.

From the beginning Amirpour’s film sets itself apart with a string of unforgettable visual punches – the creek inexplicably stacked and blocked with dead bodies, the constant bobbing background motion of the oil derricks, the light reflecting off a vintage car’s panelling – all of which are rendered in the kind of crisp, thick black and white that you could reach into the screen and peel strips from. It’s an assured piece of world building, teetering on the edge of unrealistic but with just enough of the familiar to suck the viewer in. We know this place and recognise the characters that live in it, but it’s unfamiliar enough to stop anything feeling like a trope. All of the action is understated, with even a character’s brutal murder doing little to distract from the film’s steady drift. The events depicted have a feeling of almost mythic inevitability about them. It’s an imaginatively realised first half an hour, but unfortunately as it goes on the film begins to sag under the weight of its own inscrutability, and what starts out refreshing begins to stifle.

Ironically – or not – the film A Girl Walks Home… most resembles in its failings is Jim Jarmusch’s ennui-laden vampire tale, Only Lovers Left Alive. Not because of any surface similarities – there are practically none, aside from the pointy teeth element – but because what they both have in common is a commitment to a certain kind of reference rich yet affectless cool. The kind that can have the unfortunate side effect of suffocating a film under its own ruthlessly maintained and unvarying texture. For a start it is unforgivably slow, chock full of long shots and dreamlike cutaways that seem to hang there for that crucial few seconds too long. A crucial few seconds that, when added up, begin to make the film feel self-important, and certainly a lot longer than its relatively slim 101 minutes.

The other trait A Girl Walks Home At Night shares with Jarmusch’s film is its rusty shack load of pop-cultural reference points. The vinyl fetishism, the sunglasses, the just-so eclecticism of the (admittedly brilliant) soundtrack. Its so neat, so ordered and so in need of something – some combustible element – to shake it up and inject some chaotic relief. A tale of star-crossed lovers is all well and good in the right hands, but it feels like the film is going for something a lot more complicated than that. The vampirical main character’s behaviour would hint as much, whether she’s dancing alone to Johnny Jewel productions and applying make-up (in a clear reference to Jonathan Demme’s Silence Of The Lambs) or threatening a defenceless child. The whole construction could do with a little more of the chaos that it sometimes threatens to unleash.

But it’s the stark unfamiliarity of the imagery that will stay with you. The moments of horror, when they happen, are deliciously brutal and I don’t think I’m going to be able to shake the image of a solitary vampire disconsolately pushing herself along a wall on a skateboard from my head for a long while. When the film hits it does so with a quiet, undeniable force. But it’s ironic that a film concerning a mythical creature with no reflection should be so confoundingly obsessed by what it sees when it looks in the mirror.

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